Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Masdar City backs away from major goal

©MMX Get On Board!PRT NewsCenter

Already forced to reevaluate its construction plans due to the bad global real estate market, the Masdar Initiative has again signaled it is giving up on the goal of Masdar City being car-free.

Although committed to an autumn 2010 launch of the pilot Masdar Institute segment of the innovative Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) peoplemover, future construction of a PRT network across the entire city is now in doubt.

Fares Ghneim, Masdar communications chief, told the New York Times: "committing heavily to the PRT system might not make sense just as efficient new electric and hybrid vehicles are entering the marketplace," and said they would interfere with PRT.

Electric, hybrid or not, private automobiles are inherently unsustainable -- they have low occupancy, land and/or infrastructure must be devoted to parking, and they lead to congestion and accidents. Plus, hybrids burn fuel -- and just imagine the drain on Masdar's grid if everyone owned a plug-in EV.

In a March interview, another Masdar official used the same line about other vehicles interfering with PRT.

The whole advantage of the PRT was that it would make rapid transit-like service available to all parts of the city -- with a finite number of low-energy, automatic vehicles. But another Ghneim quote indicates he doesn't understand the PRT system, telling the Times hybrids and EVs would obscure PRT guidance magnets and confuse PRT sensors.

However, sources with knowledge of the Masdar PRT program tell PRT NewsCenter that the magnets and sensors can't be affected in that way.

In short, Masdar is signaling it is giving up on the car-free goal: it is making up excuses to not build citywide PRT to justify allowing cars into Masdar City.

How can Masdar be considered cutting edge, if it's not willing to innovate transportation, the biggest energy-using sector?


  1. Archived Comment by James Anderson Merritt on June 27, 2010 at 1:59pm

    I always suspected that Masdar's eyes were bigger than its stomach, and that they would compromise or even repudiate many of their original goals before the city was built -- if it ever WAS built. From the first, the entire project reminded me of Disney's EPCOT, and I expected it would take a similar path. Some may remember that EPCOT was originally intended as an actual town, a "living laboratory" to investigate the benefits to society of various technological advances and methods of social organization. It was to answer the question, "what would it be like to actually live in TomorrowLand?" The name is an acronym: Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. They also investigated PRT-like people-movers as the primary means of transportation within the community. But eventually, it became clear that the project, as originally conceived, would be too costly and fraught with uncertainty to implement in the context of the larger DisneyWorld theme park, so they scaled back the ambition to make EPCOT more of a TomorrowLand-like museum/showcase of new technologies -- sort of like Disneyland's old Monsanto Home of the Future, expanded to village-size.

    Ever since Masdar was announced, many of my PRT-supporting friends liked to beat naysayers around the head and shoulders, rhetorically speaking, with the Masdar example. I cautioned them not to count their chickens before they hatched, lest they end up with egg on their faces. I preferred to cite the developments at Heathrow, which, despite several delays that were both frustrating and embarrassing for me, seem to be finally coming to fruition.

    On the other hand, we fully expected the Heathrow PRT to begin serving airport passengers this month, but BAA has only said that the service will open to the public "in the new future," "when it is ready to do so." They've been testing and tweaking this system for a long time. At some point, delays "for additional testing" begin to sound less like excessive prudence and more as if there is something wrong at the core of the ULTra system. Which is it, I wonder?

  2. Archived Comment by James Anderson Merritt on June 28, 2010 at 1:33am

    Although I'm a real fan of PRT, I'm not sure that it is appropriate to use the term "inherently unsustainable" to describe private EVs. As long as there is space for parking and storing them and for the lanes in which they travel, as long as funds (from private savings accounts or insurance policies, e.g.) are available to deal with the accidents, and as long as it is possible to provide sufficient sources of power for recharging, they seem pretty "sustainable" to me. Out in the desert, it would appear that Masdar can use up as much space as it needs for vehicles, or for CSP or PV electric generation solar-farms. Also, it is conceivable that future EVs brought into the city could run on "automatic pilot" if connected via wireless link to a citywide navigation system. This could minimize accidents, perhaps to zero under all reasonable circumstances and many unreasonable ones.

    On the other hand, if the goal is to use minimal resources of energy and space, in order to demonstrate a city infrastructure that is sustainable in MANY parts of the world, especially in areas where those two resources come at a premium, then I agree: the compromised Masdar may not serve as a prototype of sustainable urbanity that could be successful everywhere.

    What makes personal vehicles "unsustainable" is threefold: 1) we run out of space for auto infrastructure; 2) we run out of fuel for the autos themselves; 3) the atmosphere can only deal with so much pollution before it becomes toxic to living things or promotes harmful climate change. In many places, however, issues of space or energy availability are not critical, and the EVs themselves do not need to pollute at all, if the sources of the electrons they use are green, and renewable. PRT doesn't do a lot to help the occupancy issue, but it does help deal with the infrastructure space, energy use, and safety issues.