The concept of personal rapid transport (PRT) is compelling due to the logistical efficiencies, fuel savings, emission reductions and safety improvements such systems can realize. However, their metropolis level implementation remains closer to a science fiction movie than to reality, even in planned cities like Masdar.
PRTs exist in many forms, but their basic principle is to provide shared, autonomous, point to point travel for people in urban areas, allowing travelers to rest or work instead of operating a vehicle. By reducing vehicle size and the number of stops, PRTs use less energy when starting and stopping than traditional trains or buses, which are typically underutilized except during peak periods. Some PRTs use guided tracks, like the one at Heathrow Airport, while others like the one in Masdar rely on subterrain magnets to guide above ground pods that carry 4-20 people.
If properly designed and implemented, such a system could eliminate or greatly reduce the need for cars, buses and trains within a metropolitan area, vastly reducing energy use and emissions, decreasing human-error safety issues and increasing the number of non-commuting hours available to city residents and their employers. The economic benefits that could be realized by such a system through increased productivity and reduced labor costs are extraordinary.
Given these benefits, the relative scarcity of such systems speaks to the existence of significant barriers that prevent their widespread adoption. Like many urban transportation projects, PRT systems rely on scale to generate demand and require ample space to implement its infrastructure. This creates a “chicken or egg” problem for PRT systems. Usually cities with existing high demand for innovative transportation systems are those that have the least space for their implementation. Few metropolises have space for a PRT to add dedicated tracks, requiring the system to leverage existing roadways or transit thoroughfares, which are usually already congested. Alternatively, the metropolises that do not have these space constraints are like Masdar, pre-planned eco-cities that either exist only on paper or are in their very early development. In such cities, attracting residents is crucial to their success. Therefore, planning a transportation system before demand exists for it requires the project sponsor to take on significant risks that cannot be collateralized nor reliably offset with future cash flows. For these reasons, implementation of PRTs have been primarily limited to highly trafficked, high-revenue compartmentalized area such as airports and small, well capitalized, new urban developments such as Masdar.
However, even in the latter case, despite Masdar’s intentions to leverage PRT to create a car free city, the city’s recent partnership with Mitsubishi Heavy Transport to incorporate a one-year pilot with at least 10 electric vehicles show evidence that original plans to rely on personal rapid transport and freight rapid transport needed to be adjusted or thrown out.[iii]
If the implementation of PRT can not succeed in Masdar, a pre-planned metropolis backed by a wealthy, growing state, prospects for future implementations seem bleak without a disruptive innovation that would either allow an existing city to leverage its current infrastructure or finance a comprehensive system in a new urban development.
[i] Treehugger, “Podcars Running At London’s Heathrow Airport,” http://www.treehugger.com/cars/podcars-running-at-londons-heathrow-airport.html, accessed March 3, 2013
[iii] Masdar City, “Sustainability in the City,” http://masdarcity.ae/en/62/sustainability-and-the-city/transportation/, accessed March 3, 2013