Thursday, 12 July 2012

Personal Rapid Transit - In Pod We Trust

Everybody loves elevated railways.* Except anyone on the second floor. Never knowing when a few thousand of your fellow citizens will zoom past your cube is the number three reason why no one takes monorail seriously.

However in our world of dreamers and schemers monorail just makes sense. No less an imagineer than Walt Disney made it the theme transit system of tomorrow. Even one of Toronto's Mayor Fords proposed it as a scheme to shuttle people from nowhere to some deserted plateau. And Jane Jacob's urban visionary successor, The Simpsons, lampooned the monorail as the ultimate gimmick for desperate cities in desperate times.

Yet the dream of monorail will not die. First of all, it excites urban planners because it's a method to use the only available downtown real estate - the space above the roadway. With a monorail, erection is a breeze! Everyone who wants to drive on the road can do so, plus you can whisk those second-class losers who can't afford cars on their choo choo in the sky.

And times must be very tough indeed, because there are now three elevated railway companies pushing the same urban transit concept – Personal Rapid Transit. Yes, a streetcar meant to carry one person?! On demand!

This is one idea that looks sensational on a drawing board. It makes for a great set of powerpoint slides. It carries a price tag that is surprisingly cheap. You can build a system that blankets all of downtown for the cost of a few miles of four lane highway. Including the cars!

Then some poor unfortunate has to climb those long stairs up to the elevated train, and stand on the edge of a platform with no railings suspended some 20 feet in the air.

Let's watch that video:

So that was some time ago. What's happening with PRT today?
Well better 3-D computer graphic animations. Without further ado, let's submit to Sweden's Vectus PRT sales presentation

Well that was professional. Now, let's look at the video shot at the test track and see what it really looks like.

Nothing screams "unproven technology" like the flashing amber lights attached to each outbuilding along the course. "Danger! Our technology is being used."

During the "Winter Test" part of the video, we saw the #2 reason people hate monorails- because they dump huge amounts of snow at random intervals on the pedestrians foolish enough to walk on the streets.

And I hoped you noticed all the ladders around the test track. A reminder of the #1 reason everyone hates monorails. Because if they break down or malfunction in any way... you're stuck way up in the air. Enjoy climbing down that ladder!

PRT systems are being not built all around the globe. Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is not building a PRT system. In North America, Microsoft is not building a Vectus System at their Redmond Campus. In fact, more PRT systems are not being built now that at any time in the previous century!

The Economist reports that if Ben Cayetano becomes mayor of Honolulu he is going to do a Mayor Ford and cancel the elevated rail project that would have serviced all of Oahu..

And The Monorail Society reports that Moscow is going to decommission its 8 year old monorail. Looks like we can call that one a monoFAIL.

The Reality: Heathrow's Ultra PRT
The Ultra Personal Rapid Transit system at Heathrow is in a glorified busway, and they lumber along with the grace of racoons, slamming into the sides of the track on curves and bouncing up and down. That would be a great ride action for a haunted house ride on the fair, but probably not quite what the international air traveler is looking forward to after taking the red eye over from North America.

Here's the video. You may as well skip the first two minutes of them training the passengers.

And finally, because you've been so patient, here's a treat. The King's monorail!

Fahrt im Kaiserwagen der Wuppertaler Schwebebahn

*Disclosure: Elevated railways are not monorails, although most monorails are elevated railways. All of the systems in this article are railways and none are monorails, except the Schwebebahn. Explaining why is boring and geeky. But calling all of them monorails is more fun!


  1. Frankly, I find the whole podcar idea enchanting, although it seems to me that its place is suburban, not core area. We already have a core transit infrastructure that, while not perfect, is adequate, existing and paid for. Imagine, however, monorails feeding into the core from the suburbs, an effective way to reduce the hellish commute, perhaps. Anyway, check out "Car-free or carefree in the 905" in the Sunday Star at

  2. Thanks Wilson I will read that article. As you can possibly tell from the tone of my piece I do not hold out a lot of hope for the PRT-type POD vehicle. However, knowing that self-driving automobiles exist, to me it is obvious that they can be applied very successfully to suburban commuting. Basically computers can pack more cars in the same roadways, and do so more safely.