Podcar City 7 Conference

PCC7The seventh in the series of Podcar City conferences was held October 23-25, 2013 in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Arlington, Virginia. I previously attended the first conference in Uppsala in 2007 and the fourth in San José, California in 2010. The name for these meetings is a play on the “Car City Conference” held in Sweden in the 1950s to assess how Swedish cities would have to change to accommodate the shift from public transit to the automobile. The International Institute for Sustainable Transportation decided it was time for us to start thinking about how cities will adapt to the new Automated Transit Networks, known as Podcars in Sweden.In his keynote address, Congressman Mike Honda mentioned that in his days on the local school board, they cultivated a local journalist as an expert on education policy so that she could assist them in connecting with the community. He also suggested that we should reexamine the wording of federal transportation policy, since that is what drives policy.
Peter Muller of PRT Consulting described how the Ultra PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) system at London Heathrow Airport had to be retrofitted into a dense existing environment with many constraints. Nevertheless, they were able to route the guideway around all obstacles without the need to disturb any of the exiting infrastructure. This speaks to the flexibility of PRT. A recent snowstorm shut down the airport, but Ultra’s guideway plow kept the PRT fully operational. So far, the Heathrow Pod has never caused anyone to miss a flight.
In a later presentation, Peter drew our attention to automated freight handling. “How many trucks really need to be that big? Have you ever looked inside a big truck? What was in it? Was it a big piece of equipment that couldn’t fit in a small vehicle? Or was it many small boxes that really could more effectively be moved in small vehicles? Could these different forms of transportation share the same infrastructure? Right now they don’t. … I think now is a great time to replace our infrastructure because it’s all falling apart. … What’s the opposite of fragile? Robust? The book ‘Antifragile’ claims that robust is not the opposite of fragile. If something’s fragile, and you overload it, it will break. If something is robust, and you overload it, it doesn’t do anything. So that’s not the opposite – it just stays the same. If something is anti-fragile, and you overload it, it actually gets stronger. The two PRT systems that have been around for awhile are showing signs of being anti-fragile, because when demand peeks, people start sharing rides, which increases capacity. … We need active federal involvement in ATN development. Some ideas for things the feds could be doing: remove biases, such as modal biases, from transportation funding; fund roads and transit equally based on improvements in accessibility and sustainability, remove corridor biases, use the term ‘service area’ instead, and remove biases favoring legacy systems. The federal government should do something to promote reasonable risk taking; they should fund demonstration projects to, 1) demonstrate scalability, 2) calibrate ridership models, and 3) educate planners, owners, and the public.”
Alexander Kyllmann, Managing Director of ModuTram Mexico, noted that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is booming in Latin America partly because powerful institutions like the World Bank and the World Resources Institute are requiring it. In many Mexican cities 50% of trips are on public transit. So they have positioned their Autotrén system as a feeder/distributer for BRT. The feedback from the Mexican government & NGOs was that personal vehicles are elitist, and did not fit into Mexican culture. So they have shifted their focus to larger Group Rapid Transit (GRT) vehicles. Mr. Kyllmann announced that Modutram will be installing a demonstration system at a convention center. In answer to a question from Matthew Lesh of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Mr. Kyllmann revealed that the Mexican government has so far invested less than US$6M in the development and testing of Autotrén. He expects that another US$6M will be needed to prepare for a public mass transit application. [At this point you could almost hear the audience gasp. Did we hear that right? While consultants have been telling American cities that the cost of entry into ATN is upwards of a billion dollars, a small team in Mexico has brought ATN to the threshold of commercialization for an amount of money that could be found under any sofa cushion in Washington D.C. We hope that the policy makers in the room took note of this.]
Alain Kornhauser of Princeton University pointed out that PRT was never about traveling alone. The reason small vehicles work best is that, even in a large city, there are very few people who are traveling from the same origin, to the same destination, at the same time.
Ingmar Andreasson noted that once a driver is no longer necessary, there is no longer any reason to have big vehicles. Smaller vehicles can come more often, providing better service. Volvo has demonstrated platooning of cars on surface streets at 85 kph (53 mph) and 0.3 second headway. We have had difficulty getting PRT systems certified at half that speed and 10 times that headway. Expectations for safety in transit systems is much higher than it is for cars. But the automobile industry can bring much to the world of automation: resources, economies of scale, and political influence.
Representing the Public PRT Consortium (PPRTC) in Colorado, Michael Gray noted that as infrastructure is destroyed by calamity, or just wears out, it must be continuously re-built. We may as well take advantage of the opportunity to replace it with something better. But they believe that PRT is still too expensive to succeed by itself, but can succeed as a part of a larger synergetic economic framework. They propose combining PRT with utility distribution and freight delivery, which is already in use by companies like Amazon, FedEx, and Ikea. The next step is to extend those networks beyond the company facilities.
Nathan Koren of Podaris began as an architect because he was interested in sustainable design, particularly car-free cities. But he soon found out that architects can only do what developer ask for, all developer can do is what urban planners let them do, all urban planners can do was what transport planners let them do, and transport planners can only work with the legacy systems they understand. He noticed that the transport plan determined the form of the city. So he decided to move up the food chain, and become a transport planner. He designed a project for Amritsar, India that had 7 stations, 8km of guideway, and 240 pods – capable of carrying up to 100,000 passengers per day. It was to be privately financed. No public funds would be needed, only the right-of-way. But the project met with resistance from the Market Traders Association because the proposed system would allow potential shoppers to easily bypass their shops. He believes that the plan should have included the up-grading of the market street into a car-free pedestrian mall. The way to build the best projects is to involve the community. Nathan explained how he is addressing this sort of problem with Podaris, his new collaborative on-line ATN design, visualization, and simulation tool. With Podaris, people can explore the possibilities of ATNs, and quickly zero in on promising designs, without the need to hire expensive consultants.
In his keynote address, Congressman Jim Oberstar said, “There may be a realization slowly taking place in Congress, there’s certainly a realization among the public, highway planners, engineer, and thinkers like you, that we simply can’t pour more concrete, and build our way out of congestion. … The solutions are at hand, and they include podcars, and they need to be implemented. That will take investment, but more than that, political will. You are the leaders in this arena. You have to make your voices heard in the public arena, and inspire the public to push the policy makers, both state and national, to catch up with you.”
Laura Stuchinsky, Transportation Sustainability Officer for the City of San José said, “It’s very hard for cities to step out and build technology with local public funds because there aren’t federal funds when the technology hasn’t been proven in the United States, hasn’t gone through any kind of regulatory authority because there are no regulations at the state level able to handle this kind of new technology. The public agencies at the state level are not used to dealing with new technology. They’re used to working with existing technology. It’s very hard for a local agency to step out in that environment and build the first system with public funds for fear that if it fails, not only will they be trounced, but also the technology will be set back substantially in the United States, like with Morgantown. And we don’t want to see that happen. And unfortunately the federal government has been in a place where they haven’t been able to come up with dollars to move ahead, to do the R&D, and do the proving that would allow the public agencies and the private dollars to come into the space. I think that’s where we’re getting caught. There are other governments who have been able to step in and assist these new technologies move forward and see the economic development opportunities that are there. We have both higher regulatory barriers and we also don’t have the funding where our economy is. That’s the conundrum I’m not sure how we’re going to get out of.” [Laura’s mention of Morgantown deserves some explanation. In the 1970’s, the federal government choose the campus of West Virginia University at Morgantown as the site for a PRT demonstration project. Because it was intended as a demonstration of technical feasibility, staying within the original budget was not a priority, and the contractors were informed as such. So it’s not surprising that it went over budget. Nor is it very significant, because the cost of a prototype is no indication of the cost for full production. Nevertheless, as a proof of concept, the Morgantown PRT has been a resounding success, providing safe and reliable service for over 35 years now. The first metropolitan ATN on public rights-of-way will be the subject of intense interest worldwide. So we agree with Ms. Stuchinsky that it is vital that it be seen not only as a technical success, but also as an economically viable option.]
In response, Congressman Oberstar recalled that, “In 1968 President deGaul commissioned a group to study the possibility of a high-speed rail system for France. A year later the commission came back with their report.” Once the cabinet ministers had expressed their reservations, “deGaul simply said, ‘Is there any other country in the world that has this technology?’ The answer was, ‘No.’ And deGaul said, ‘Then France will be the first!’ Who is the deGaul of the United States? That’s what we need.”
In her presentation, Laura Stuchinsky said, “As I mentioned, we began a conversation with the California Public Utilities Commission which has determined that it has responsibility for overseeing the construction of ATNs in California. They are currently developing regulations for Automated People Movers. Even though APMs have been built in the state, there aren’t state regulation specifically for their construction. And the next thing they want to take up is ATNs.”
A prominent contributor to this year’s conference was Fred Payne, a County Commissioner in Greenville South Carolina. In cooperation with Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research their goal is a demonstration project making use of an abandoned railroad right-of-way which they own. They are not eligible for federal funding because the federal government does not recognize automated transit as an option. So they have decided that they will have to go it alone. In his main presentation Mr. Payne elaborated, “Today young people are motivated not so much by money, as by connectivity and mobility. They want to be able to live anywhere in the world, and be connected to people anywhere in the world. … One of the things the County Council does is make zoning decisions. … Thirty years ago, they decided to separate residential use, industrial use, and commercial use. Never those should meet. Come on! The thing that we need is life activities. … We have residential areas where you can’t have child care. You can’t have any commercial activity. … It was the wrong decision. What we did is create a huge traffic problem. … The goal actually is not PRT. Our goal is green villages. What are green villages? They’re places where people love to live, work, shop, & play. … I’m afraid we’re trying to solve 21st century problems with 19th century solutions (railroad) or 20th century solutions (buses), and we’re ignoring the best opportunity. When John F. Kennedy was president of the United States, and Russia had Sputnik, the U.S. decided we want to be ahead of Russia … so Kennedy said, ‘We’re going to put a man on the moon, we’re going to bring him back (that was real important to the guy going), and we’re going to do it in ten years.’ What a great concept! Very easy to remember. … How did they do it? Did they do a 300 page study? No. They did a three page thing that said ‘We don’t know how to do it. You come to us with your ideas. We’ve got some smart people who are going to evaluate them, and if your idea seems to have traction with this group, we’re going to fund you. We’re going to get you started.’ … We have studied this problem to death. … There’s a sign at the Roger Milliken Research Center in Spartanburg that says, ‘Ready, Fire, Aim.’ We want to get something started, and we’ll aim, we’ll correct, as we get down the road. That’s my philosophy. I just believe action is better than studying it, putting the plan on the shelf, and doing nothing with it. I’m for action.”
Christer Lindström, the director of the International Institute of Sustainable Transportation, said “What most people don’t realize is that the money is there for change. In Sweden and the U.S. people typically spend about 20-25% of their income on getting around. If we cut our expenditures on cars in half, that would free up ~$3T in the U.S. Of course this won’t happen soon, but it’s important to understand. A 5,000 km system could cover most of the cities in Sweden so that at least 90% of the population would be within a 10 minute walk of a station. At $16M/mile that would cost about $50B. This is due in a large degree to increased density from urbanization. Developers estimate that they spend about $20,000 for each parking space. What would happen if parking requirements were cut in half, and developers contributed most of their savings toward building ATN? Let’s say that a medium-sized city typically builds about 1,000 new parking spaces per year. If you cut the parking quota in half, developers would save 500 x $20k, or $10M/year. If 90% of those savings were contributed toward building a podcar system, that would generate enough revenue to pay for a 5-10 mile system in 20-25 years – just by adjusting minimum parking requirements. … By having policy changes, and being innovative in how you think, and how you direct revenue streams, we can actually create unexpected financing. We should start pilots. And we must allow them to fail or we must accept that it could fail. … So what is the government role in this? 1) Make available rights-of-way, 2) relax parking requirements, 3) encourage R&D, and 4) education.” On the subject of the inevitable job losses that come with change, he noted that everybody who’s driving right now is taking jobs away from the people who design, build, and operate ATNs.
Larry Fabian, editor of the Advanced Transit Association’s newsletter Transit Pulse, recalled that shortly after the Podcar City Conference in Ithaca, he spoke to a high-level city official who asked “Where’s the money going to come from?” Larry suggested that if many people choose to forgo the $8-10k a year it costs to have a car, the city’s traffic congestion could be significantly reduced. Her reaction was that that would be bad because it would reduce the city’s revenues from car registrations. What do you answer that? [Is the function of government to promote the general welfare, or to maximize the amount of money it can squeeze out of the citizenry? We have to get our priorities right. The goal of transportation policy should be to provide the best transportation at the lowest cost. It really doesn’t matter how much money you’re collecting if you’re not spending to improve people’s lives.]
On of the students who worked on San José State University’s Spartan Superway, Brian Burlingame, related some of the history of that project: “Within just one year of zero knowledge, San José State has now built an environment, a culture, pushing this forward. This resonates amongst all of us. And all we needed was to be told about it. … We came up with physical models, and ultimately ended up with a functioning track, a mostly-functioning bogie, and a mostly-functioning pod. … INIST helped with a little bit of funding, but by and large we were self funded. Our total budget was $3,000. Maybe a little less. We have a good group of mentors, many of whom are in this room. We thank you all so much for the guidance and the wisdom. I think Bengt [Gustafsson of Beamways AB (http://www.beamways.se)] predicted every one of our failures before we saw them. We just didn’t quite believe him all the time.”
To cap off the conference, Ron Swenson of INIST awarded the prize for the Solar Skyways Challenge to the San José Statue University Spartan Superway Team. The prize comes with a check for $3,000, which roughly doubles the total amount of money that have had to work with.

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