In Malmo, Sweden, just over the water from the Copenhagen climate talks, international transportation experts were discussing another aspect of climate change — sustainable transportation. More specifically, the third annual Transport and Climate Change conference focused on personal rapid transit (PRT).
Sometimes called "pod cars," PRT refers to a transportation network of small shuttles that carry five to six people and run on either an elevated electrical track or are suspended from a wire like a gondola.
The first PRT system in the world is set to be unveiled to the public at London's Heathrow airport this spring after years of testing. Shortly thereafter, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi will unveil phase one of its PRT system, which will be a primary mode of transportation in the city.
While it sounds pretty high-tech and futuristic, PRT is relatively straightforward: Stations are placed throughout a network area, and at each station, people can catch pod cars to any destination within the network. So, in an airport setting, for example, a traveler could get in at one of the terminals and opt to go straight to long-term parking, the rental car counter, the nearest subway station or a hotel.
The idea of PRT has been kicking around for years no but has yet to really take off because, as Hans Larsen, acting director for the Department of Transportation in San Jose, Calif., puts it, "no one has ever done it, and government agencies tend to be pretty risk-averse."
As some of the first projects begin to come online next year, though, Larsen thinks there will be more interest in PRT and more companies jumping into the space.
Aside from the fact that it has not been tested in a real-world setting, PRT has been slow to catch on because of concerns over the visual impact it could have on cities. The pod cars themselves are typically fairly sleek and futuristic, which some people love and others don't, but the primary aesthetic concern is the track they need to run on. Whether they're on an elevated railway or a suspension wire, they won't exactly be subtle additions to cities. Then again, neither are roads, light rail tracks or trains.
If the visual barrier can be overcome, PRT could be a very viable option for cities eager to reduce their carbon footprint. They're electric and light, making them about 70 percent more energy-efficient than cars, according to Advanced Transport Systems, whose ULTra pod cars will be used at Heathrow.
In San Jose, the city is planning to use PRT to connect its airport to nearby transit hubs.
"The airport already has a shuttle that goes around it, and the local light rail has its shuttle going to and from the airport, and the airport hotels all have shuttles, as do all of the rental car agencies," Larsen points out, adding that the light rail shuttle alone costs the local transit authority about a million dollars a year to operate.
By replacing all of these shuttles with one PRT system that serves them all and — here's an important bit for cities — is partially funded by them all, Larsen says, not only are emissions reduced, but each company or organization's operational costs go down as well.
Above and beyond their ability to streamline transit options, PRT systems are generally less expensive for cities to build and operate, according to Larsen. They require lighter infrastructure than other modes, such as light rail, trains or automobiles, and they don't require drivers, which cuts down on operational costs.
In a report released earlier this year, WSP Group Sweden AB compared three transit types — PRT, light rail and city bus — and determined that city buses, at least in Sweden, were still the cheapest, but pod cars were far cheaper than light rail. The capital and operating costs for a five-mile trip averaged out to 1.8 euros by bus, 3.7 euros by pod car and 10.2 euros by light rail.
It sounds promising, which is why San Jose has allocated $4 million to kick off its airport PRT project. Larsen hopes that if the airport project goes well (it is expected to be operational by 2015), San Jose will opt to build PRT systems in other pars of the city as well.
"We have these wide roadways, so we're looking at narrowing our roads, which would leave a big land resource that ... could create corridors for pod car infrastructure pretty easily," he says. "There is new development happening around these areas, and we're really focusing on increasing density so that the city grows more sustainably, so there is really an opportunity there. If we embrace the technology and find it works, we can integrate it into a lot of redevelopment plans."
While there aren't a large number of U.S. companies currently working on PRT, there are plenty of companies in other countries with the technical capabilities to build a PRT system.
"We put out a request for interest and heard from seventeen different companies that were all interested in working with us and had the capabilities we were looking for," Larsen says.
"We were quite pleased. It gave us a good idea of where the world is in terms of developing this technology and we felt confident after that that this technology is developed enough to be ready for real-world deployment."
Larsen added that he hopes more local companies will get in on PRT as more projects come online in the next two years. There was talk at the Swedish conference of holding next year's Transport and Climate Change conference in San Jose, and Larsen hopes that bringing the conference to his city could help engage Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and innovators.
Aside from San Jose, Ithaca, N.Y., Sweden, India, Mexico and Brazil all are exploring PRT projects, and there was a great deal of talk about using PRT to connect stations that are part of California's high-speed rail project to local transit hubs. A joint project between Sweden and South Korea is planned to open in a Korean national park in 2013 to remove cars from the park and connect visitors to local transit and parking garages.
"As Heathrow and Masdar come online and people can go out and see it, there's an expectation that this could take off and skyrocket," Larsen says.
So far, that still seems like a long way off, but in a month filled with posturing and bickering, it's encouraging to hear about countries working together on a potential climate change solution, however small and idealistic.