london heathrow

Personal Rapid Transit

[youtube=] We’ve all heard of BRT, but what is PRT?  It’s a term being pushed by a British company called ULTra PRT, and it stands for personal rapid transit

Last Thursday, I attended a presentation sponsored by the Carolina Transportation Program where Steve Raney essentially gave his sales pitch for the idea of PRT.  Raney is a transportation planner and consultant with Advanced Transport Systems Inc. who is driving development opportunities for ULTra’s concept. Its main success so far is seen at London’s Heathrow Airport where they are in the construction phase at Terminal 5.  The system will connect passengers directly to the car park, but is envisioned to expand in the future connecting to other amenities like hotels.  The idea has several selling points: 95% of passengers will have to wait less than 1 minute for a car; all the vehicles are battery-powered (making it green); and, the cars do not require drivers since they run on a closed system.

But, Raney didn’t focus much on the Heathrow project; instead, he spent most of his time selling the more general idea of PRT as a design solution to the myriad transportation and environmental challenges to be faced by the room full of UNC transportation planning graduate students.  He claimed that market research revealed that, if we can solve the “last mile problem,” people have a way of figuring out the “first mile problem” on their own.  So, let’s concentrate the PRT vehicles in dense environments – like airports or office parks – and let people come to them.  The vehicles should then run directly to other dense environments where people are likely to be traveling (shopping or employment centers, for example).

This idea is not different from traditional public transit, however it claims to be greener, faster, and generally more convenient.  The students in the room were definitely skeptical – after all, building this network is not cheap and requires a lot of network effects to be efficient.  We’ll be keeping tabs on the development at Heathrow.  I hope you will, too.

-Terra Curtis

Update: I received a thoughtful comment from a reader and wanted to clarify two things.  First, as the commenter points out, Heathrow is ULTra's main success; PRT's successes have been "much broader and deeper."  I found this nice collection of PRT examples from the University of Washington.  Second, I meant to imply this but wasn't totally clear: PRT's closed system is not the only reason why the vehicles can be driver-less.  The main reason is that these vehicles are equipped with intelligent transport systems.  As far as I know, these communications technologies are advanced enough to drive vehicles smoothly in a closed system where all vehicles communicate.  When 'wild cards' like drivers are thrown into the picture, the complexity increases immensely and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to coordinate all the movements.  See this research from Stanford University.  For those interested, there will be a conference held in San Jose, CA on October 27-29, 2010 called "Podcar City."  You can read more info here and register here.