Podcars may sound like science fiction, but it is likely that Ithaca in upstate New York, USA will install rapid personal transit systems (PRTs) within the next five years. Transport journalist Piers van den Burgh suggests it should be the first of many such urban installations for a transport mode whose time has come.
The college town of Ithaca is not alone in considering installing the futuristic, driverless computer-guided cars. Santa Cruz in California has hired a contractor to design a small solar-powered podcar system that will run through the midtown then along the beach front, and there is already a limited podcar system at Morgantown at the university of West Virginia, which was built in 1975 and uses larger podcars that hold up to 15 people.
The advantages of podcar systems go beyond economics and the environment. Designers say they help alleviate city congestion, suffer few accidents and are safer than most other transport modes. Land is used more efficiently as less needs to be allocated to roads and parking. It will also make transport more accessible to the elderly and those with mobility problems.
As the population becomes older with more retired people than ever, experts argue we need to move beyond the motor car and apply innovation to public transport, an area that has remained largely unchanged for more than a century.
While the economic argument in favour of the podcar is hotly debated, the reality is that this technology is already here and about to be rolled out across many countries.
Sweden is planning systems across a dozen cities as part of its commitment to be fossil-fuel-free by 2020. Initial tests have taken place. Poland and South Korea's Vectus are close behind and operating full-scale test tracks to prove the technology. In the United Arab Emirates, the new Masdar City outside Abu Dhabi, which aims to be the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste city, is designing its own podcar system.
Even the UK’s London Heathrow Airport is getting in on the act. It’s introducing a small network to transport people from the parking lot to the terminal next year. Called ULTra, it is the kind of small leap in practical development that could push the podcar concept directly into the mainstream as a major alternative to road transport.
In urban applications, podcar systems could typically carry between two and 10 people, and provide a blend between the privacy of the automobile and the accessibility of public transport systems, while using clean energy. Stations would be located on every block or every half mile and passengers would enter their destination on a keypad and the podcar would take them there nonstop. Of course, the cars could stop to take on passengers and would be summoned from an off-line station. They would run on rails or overhead rail systems and could be installed on a block-by block basis.
The capital cost is estimated at between US$25 million to US$50 million a mile, including guideways, stations and vehicles. This compares favorably with light rail or subway system transport at about US$100 million to US$300 million a mile.
According to Catherine G Burke, at the University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning and Development, a city block of tracks could be built in a day and an entire network in a few weeks or months. This is in contrast to rail systems, which take years to complete. The comparatively small scale of podcar guideways would make them unobtrusive as they could be erected above city streets and pavements, with wiring and street lighting routed through the guideways.
The network could also enhance existing rail systems by providing a feeder network built on existing streets with no costs for rights of way or using private property. They would also be available 24/7.
Podcars undoubtedly offer many advantages for urban transport, but how can they move beyond their current use as a novelty in limited area operations, including airports, university campuses and corporate business parks? What factors would push them into the mainstream?
It is arguable that we will need a practical and efficient alternative to the car for urban transport as fuel stocks dwindle and costs continue to rise, and there is an ever-increasing emphasis on the environment.
As city authorities struggle to accommodate increased volumes of car traffic, the podcar's economic and practical efficiency is likely to prove increasingly attractive.
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