Rapid Transit Gets Personal, Again

After decades of discussion and experimentation, Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) is again getting attention as a potential alternative means of transport, merging the comfort of the private car with the automation and safety of public transit.

2 minute read

January 15, 2013, 12:00 PM PST

By Jonathan Nettler @nettsj


"Personal Rapid Transit is probably best described as a hybrid between the private car and public transit, with some more familiar elements of the taxi and elevator thrown in," explains Badger. "Picture, in short, a pod car."

The concept of the PRT has been around for at least five decades, and a system from the 1970's still operates at the University of West Virginia. Now, with improved technology, lower costs, and attractive environmental benefits, the technology is once again attracting interest. In fact, "Heathrow Airport in the U.K. opened a PRT system in the summer of 2011, and the built-from-scratch supposedly net-zero community of Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates is planned around one as well."

With recent research suggesting the crucial element in persuading people to ditch their cars for mass transit is to match the qualities people love most about their automobiles, PRT might "be the solution that destigmatizes public transit for drivers who fear its unreliability," says Badger.

"On a PRT system, you’d hop into your own pod, with one arriving every minute or even less at a station on a designated track. You could share one as you would a taxi, with someone heading to the same destination. Or, you’d ride it alone like a car. You’d then direct the vehicle to a specific destination within the system, to which it would travel without making any stops in between (and without fighting normal congestion). It would be almost like stepping into an elevator and pressing a button to the sixth floor."

"Everything about this scheme mirrors the personalized experience of a private car, on common public infrastructure like a set of train tracks," adds Badger.

"That was the original idea," says Wayne Cottrell, an associate faculty associate professor of engineering at National University in San Diego. "Advocates have stuck to that over the decades: This is a great idea, we just need to convince somebody with money to invest in this."

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