So, what is PRT? Well it's Personal Rapid Transit and it is something that we in Auckland and New Zealand for that matter, should get to know more about. Why? - Because it is a transit solution whose time really has come. That is a bit of a statement to make but I am comfortable in making it. But first a bit more about PRT as a transit technology.
PRT is based on small computer controlled 3-5 person cabs running on an elevated guideway. It is electric so is much greener than existing petrol or diesel transit. Since the whole system is computer controlled, it knows where things are and understands where the demands are. Stations are off-line. In the case of buses and trains, travellers end up going where everyone else goes in stop-start fashion. This is not a particularly efficient way to travel even though we have become quite used to it. It makes for comparitively longer journeys, greater use of energy etc. With PRT on the other hand, off-line stations mean the cabs travel directly to your pre-selected destination. This significantly reduces travel time and all other resource use. The cabs only go into an off-line station to pick up of drop off. So they don't slow or block cabs that are on-line.
For me, this is the best thing since sliced bread! I guess that is why I am so keen to support it here. Dr J E (Ed) Anderson is the acknowledged world-wide expert on PRT. He has been working with PRT for 35 years. Dr Anderson is one of those guys that is completely and genuinely dedicated to seeing this technology up and running round the world. So much so that he has agreed to bring the technology down here if there is support for it.
But PRT is not without its detractors. There are those that say this technology has been around for decades but nothing has come out of the millions of dollars spent on it. Critics point out that there is no full commercial implementation of PRT that we can point at and say "there, that is how PRT works and it works well". In fact this is a reason often used by transit professionals for not even looking at PRT as a solution. Well that used to be the case.
It seems that a lot more cities are considering or reconsidering PRT. Part of this is being driven by the failure of existing transit solutions to address ever increasing congestion and pollution. The latter is now a very big driver, with industrial countries realising the impact of climate change and the need for green transit solutions.
The US State Legislature of New Jersey passed legislation recently to have PRT reviewed. The review is out very and very favourable. Read it here. There is a PRT system which has commenced construction at Heathrow Airport (see it here). PRT is at various stages of review or implementation in Sweden, Korea and Poland. Recent studies have been carried out in Daventry UK and Melbourne, Australia. It is clear these cities are serious about getting PRT in place.
Many of the technical problems that were initially encountered with PRT are now more readily solvable. For example computing power required for controlling a whole transit system is much more sophisticated. Ed Anderson himself, using his 35 years of experience, has developed a key controller for PRT systems. Ed's experience work with Honeywell and NASA in their space programme has sure come in handy.
Building materials are lighter and cheaper reducing cost significantly. Some very general cost estimates range from (USD) $10-20 million a kilometre for PRT compared to $60+ million a kilometre for light rail. (See here for a Washington University 2003 comparison and here for a hypothetical city scenario).
Part of the difficulty for adoption of PRT though, is a perception one. It is a real paradigm shift that can be hard for some to get their heads around. This is especially true of entrenched transit professionals. One of PRT's key advantages is its size and low weight. This means much lower cost and greater flexibility for getting it running in lots of places. You can run it down existing roadways and motorways. Bolt it onto the side of a building or the harbour bridge for that matter (more on this later).
But this low weight and 3-5 person cabs raise a whole lot of questions. For example, how do these small cabs deal with peak hour crowds, stadium crowds etc. What about safety and security? These cabs are unmanned. So what happens if you get stuck riding with someone you don't know? And if you only ride by yourself how is that cost effective for the operator?
The solution to the crowd issue is quite counter-intuitive and is based partly on an understanding of how crowds actually form up when waiting for transit. Ironically it is our conventional transit system that causes the crowd in the first place. Our current transit paradigm consists of scheduled departures of large carriers at peak time. At 4:30pm and fairly regularly thereafter we get big buses or big trains waiting to take us off to our destination.
But here is the point. The crowd does not instantly form up and then get onto the bus or the train. The crowd forms in continuous dribs and drabs. Even in a stadium with people exiting a game they don't all exit instantly. And of those exiting not everyone converges onto a bus or train. If buses or trains got 25 % of the crowd exiting they would be doing incredibly well. And to continue the point, the reason why the crowd builds is they have no-where to go until the scheduled departure. So in a way it could be said the scheduling "causes" the crowd.
With PRT the system is on demand. Crowds do not get to form up to any degree. When the dribs and drabs arrive, there is a cab there to take them away either immediately or shortly thereafter. These arrivals can be modelled which can give an idea of how to meet demand. Having on-demand systems, though, requires a lot of other things to be going on as well. It requires having enough cabs in the system to meet peak hour demand. It also requires effective throughput to ensure continuous flow at peak time. This is dealt with by a centralised computer control system. That system knows where the demand is, where the cabs are and can shift cabs around to meet demand.
However, this has driven further criticism. It really does sound too good to be true and the argument is that you need to see one in action to believe it.
The simulation models show the system can work. Ok that's not the same as having one. Potential problems with throughput are solvable or solved. Drs Olaf Diegel and Johan Potgieter are based at the Massey Institute of Technology and Engineering Albany Campus. They have indicated their willingness to address any issues with PRT in New Zealand and put their school's resources behind it. But getting a PRT system up and running really requires political will. With no major deployment in place, every one wants someone else to be first.
For New Zealand though, there is a huge opportunity to take a "green" lead. In Auckland in particular and especially on the North Shore it is not as if the alternatives are particularly inspiring. More buses still mean traffic on the road. Nor are they green, so more carbon emissions. Light rail costs are significantly greater and lack the flexibility PRT can offer. In any case, PRT is not a replacement to any other transit channels. It is complementary and adds additional transit channels to buses and ferries on the North Shore.
And what about the harbour bridge? The thought of just bolting on a PRT guideway to provide additional traffic channels seems such a simple solution - maybe too simple. That is an interesting point. PRT operates on elevated guideways over existing roadways, including the lanes on the harbour bridge. Light rail is not so light - bolting on is not so easy. It cannot run over the top of the existing lanes on the harbour bridge - at least not without significant cost.
There are of course obvious advantages that such a solution would create in increasing harbour crossing capacity. That could be done without incurring the immediate expense of a second crossing. That's not to say a second crossing should be avoided. It just gives us options now.
What about travelling with strangers and security? The paradigm really is about personal transit. In other words you travel only with whom you want. The cabs travel directly to the destination you have selected. They do not stop to pick up or drop off other passengers unless that is what you have arranged. Cabs will be equipped with internal communications providing a means to communicate to a central controller in the event of problems.
Cost effectiveness has been raised as an issue for such a personal approach. How can you make such a system pay - after all you will end up with all these half-empty cabs travelling around. How inefficient is that? Well probably not as inefficient as big buses and trains running around half-empty. But there are a couple of things to consider.
First there are the significantly lower capital and operating costs referred to in the material above. This makes it easier to increase availability of the system to more people. Combined with its low weight and low environmental impact, it can get to more places. That in the end means more people likely to use it. Sure buses can do the same. But with buses you have to pay someone to drive them and as mentioned before they have to stop at every place where people want to get on and off. This adds to operational cost. So with PRT you have greater availability, on demand, direct travel.
Second 3-5 person size cabs fit more closely peoples' actual travel habits. Studies in the States indicate that average occupation of cars in commute is about 1.3 people. There is probably no reason to think that would be too different here. Anecdotally, at least, such a figure seems quite plausible here. Sizing the cabs accordingly lends itself to a greater attraction to ridership and again makes operational cost lower.
Dr Anderson has considered a number of reviews on PRT ridership and noted that estimations varied from 25% to 50%. Such ridership in Auckland would be phenomenally successful. New Zealand bus ridership has been estimated as low as 2%. Auckland North Shore bus ridership is 5.6%.
I suspect the big issue for Auckland and the North Shore will be to get PRT in front of Transit professionals and decision makers and to get the paradigm shift into the psyche. I think there really is a need to have it considered as a viable option in the transit armoury. It seems to me that the current thinking is that the problem has been solved. We have the Northern busway the Western Ring Route (not cheap) and an expensive solution like the Victoria Park tunnel lined up. The difficulty is that the population in Auckland is growing. On the North Shore it is expected to grow by 11%-24% by 2016. But traffic is expected to grow at double the population growth. A Recent Auckland Regional Council report has indicated some success with the Northern Busway in that morning peak hour traffic has decreased by some 200 cars. The report also indicated that despite population growth, average congestion for the region is getting no worse. I can't help but wonder though, whether we have only created a stop gap measure for the North Shore and whether we could be a lot smarter with our spending for the rest of Auckland.
I also wonder how we would go with big event influxes with our current fixes. One of the reasons I got involved with PRT in the first place was I became quite inspired about a world class transit system for our Rugby World Cup for 2011. It would seem we still don't do too well on that score. A recent article in the Aucklander would suggest we still have work to do in dealing with transit and large events. That doesn't bode too well for the 2011 Rugby World Cup as an event.
I really would love to see a PRT up and running from Auckland CBD to North Harbour Stadium. I still think that is the best place to have the Rugby World Cup. But in any case I still believe that PRT is a solution whose time has come.