My mass transit

A number of American cities seek solutions to the urban commute from the world of Buck Rogers

Untested ideas never die. They bounce back into the imagination.

As our urban commute leads us more and more into adventures such as smog, traffic, speedbumps, detours, roadblocks - several American cities are looking into the world of Buck Rogers for solutions.

Monorails. Automated elevated guideways. Personal rapid transit (PRT). People Pods.

These are ideas whose time has come - again - says transportation guru Jerry Schneider. Concepts that could provide answers to familiar uncertainties such as: "Can I make it to the airport on time?"

Transit planners say the success of these futuristic systems in the United States not only depends on funding and performance but also a change in attitudes toward mass transit. America is an automobile society. Mass transit serves only 2 to 3 percent of urban travel. One reason the US has been tailgating France and Japan in new transit technologies.

That's changing. In the past decade, Detroit, Jacksonville, Fla., and Miami installed automated group rapid transit systems, which move on elevated guideways and resemble the monorail.

Rosemont, a suburb of Chicago, however, is planning on a different direction: the world's first personalized mass transit system. The futuristic system is designed to combine the freedom and flexibility of the car with the efficiency of mass transit. A decision is expected next month.

The Northeastern Illinois Regional Transit Authority has already spent $21 million on a feasibility study. The system, developed by Raytheon Systems Co., recently passed operation tests at the company's test track in Marlboro, Mass. As an incentive in a royalty sharing agreement, Raytheon has offered the RTA a percentage of revenue from future worldwide sales of the system. In Raytheon's projection, the Illinois RTA could earn $200 million by 2020.

Other cities that have shown strong interest in Raytheon's and other PRT systems are Irvine, Calif., Warwick, R.I., Seattle/Tacoma, Wash., and Amsterdam.

The depth of recent interest in PRT can be measured in Morgantown, W. Va, which has become a transit stop for city planners analyzing the merits and demerits of the commercially untested technology. Built as part of the Nixon administration's push to encourage new technologies, Morgantown's Group Rapid Transit comes very close to PRT, only larger and not all rides are non-stop. The GRT's impressive history of logging 12 million miles and transporting 50 million passengers without an accident has transformed it from America's "best kept transit system secret to a sales brochure," says Jim Hatcher, the systems programmer. "As traffic gets worse and worse, we look better and better."

In its early years, Morgantown gave the GRT technology a poor start. During its 1972 inaugural run, a car with President Richard Nixon's daughter Tricia took off prematurely, in front of national media.

"They [the politicians] undertook the Morgantown PRT project but placed unreasonable time constraints on it to get it up and running before an election," says Mr. Schneider, professor emeritus of civil engineering and urban planning at the University of Washington. "It had a number of start-up problems and received a lot of ridicule in the press."

The system was quickly tagged a "boondoggle" at a time when it needed a "John Glenn." Federal funding for research and development evaporated. "Normally, to get Federal matching funds, you must propose using a proven technology - or at least one that is "approved" by the FTA," says Schneider. "FTA has no program that is similar to the Japanese ... to test and certify a particular technology for public use."

PRT backers say besides commuting, and environmental benefits, automation considerably reduces operating costs by eliminating driver salaries. "Automation is the key to making public transportation viable," says mass transit consultant Larry Fabian. "But planners think of transportation as creating jobs, not commuting." He says that transit systems such as buses and subways are subsidized, usually by as much as 50 percent. Comparatively, fares from the state-of-the-art automated people-mover in Lille, France, returned 120 percent of operating costs.

As long as they haul large volumes of people, automation travel is viable, writes Vukan Vuchic in the journal Urban Transport International. He calls PRT "expensive cars." "We won't get answers to these questions until we get a few systems up and running," Schneider says.

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