Wednesday, May 2, 2012

San Jose ATN 'not technically feasible' and what that means

The two year feasibility study by San Jose, California into an 'Automated Transit Network' podcar system at the Mineta Airport is concluding, and the implications for the prospects of American personal rapid transit are mixed. However, this was entirely predictable.

The findings, as described in a memo in advance of the full report (we haven't seen a copy of that yet), mentions four key points:

1. "The complexity and service requirements of the Airport ATN project exceed the technical capacity of the ATN systems currently available."
We read this as a simple statement of fact. The memo reviews the operational PRT systems, and finds that none of them are currently serving anything close to San Jose's requirements: an eventual 6.4 mile intermodal system, with 10 stations at two airport terminals, two train stations, a parking garage, and two parking lots.

The system with the closest capability to do this is the Heathrow Pod system. But with three stations, one parking lot and one terminal served, higher levels of service (including intermodality) are theoretical and not demonstrated at this time.

The finding is not that ATN will never be technically feasible, just that it is not feasible now, for this application. Of course, this is likely to change in the near future if the Heathrow system is expanded as anticipated, and if the ambitious Amritsar, India PRT goes forward.

2. "There is no established regulatory process to support the construction of an ATN in the United States. This complicates efforts to accurately estimate the cost of building and operating an ATN system."
This is also a statement of fact. The Morgantown PRT system is still in service, but it is a one-off and its legacy does not include a regulatory framework. It is also four decades old, its specifications are not appropriate to make it a reference system for new systems.

We anticipate objections from certain U.S.-based entrepreneur types who will make grumbly noises about 'liberty,' 'free markets,' and 'how dare government try to regulate us.' We will simply restate what we have written elsewhere: that transit is not a free market, it is a practical monopsony; that transit has characteristics of a public good, not least of which are its impacts on communities.

PRT entrepreneurs are not disinterested parties, even if done well their cost estimates cannot be assumed to be objective. Regulation and oversight in the public interest are necessary and must be robust.

Avowed opponents of PRT will, of course, focus on the words "not," "technically" and "feasible" to the exclusion of all other facts and context. UPDATE 1 (5/4/2012): I called it.


May 8th Deja Vu All Over Again

3. "The estimated cost of building the Airport ATN is less than building the APM preferred alignment, plus the ATN offers a higher level of service and greater coverage."

This was to be expected. The very nature of PRT -- more stations, automation and lower profile infrastructure -- means it always wins on this criterion.

4. "The estimated cost of operating the Airport ATN is comparable to the existing expenses of the Airport and VTA to operate shuttle buses on the Airport and between the Airport and the transit stations"

This is also not surprising. The shuttle buses require fuel, drivers and maintenance staff. A pod system would likely have lower operating costs, but not too much lower. Pods, guideway and stations would need maintenance staff, and there would be need for technical/central control staff as well. Pods would require power from somewhere, likely from the grid; even a solar system would require maintenance, and nighttime power from the grid.

These realities should not be seen as a strike against PRT, or invalidating it. These costs mean jobs for people, probably good paying union jobs given the public agencies that would be involved in operating the system. These are positives.

Update 2: San Jose has updated memo to incorporate "stakeholder feedback." Basically, it aligns with our conclusions in #1 above.

The mixed result of the San Jose study is a reflection of this being a time of transition for advanced transit technology. A decade ago PRT would have failed this study miserably, assuming a city like San Jose would even have bothered with a study at that time.

Today, the way is open to addressing the remaining shortcomings.

The way to remedy a lack of regulatory process is to create one, and San Jose realizes this -- the study recommends federal leadership in further research. We have advocated this in the past, as transit R&D funding is not the proper role for municipal or metropolitan transit agencies. Federal leadership was the model that took the PRT concept developed during the Kennedy-Johnson administrations and built it at Morgantown, West Virginia. As we now know, the mistake was to politicize the project and involve it in the 1972 election. The federal DOT should be funding the work, and determining standards for the technology.

This also overlaps with the (so far) successful model that brought Ultra and Vectus PRT systems to their current state of development. Ultra was designed at a public university, and was supported by UK and EU funds. A test track was built in Cardiff, which also served as the proving ground to achieve regulatory approval (see, it's not impossible).

Vectus was a collaboration between South Korea's POSCO and Sweden. It also constructed a test track in Sweden which led to regulatory approval.

In both cases the test tracks were later modified so as to emulate specific physical conditions of the sites of their first public systems -- Heathrow Airport and the Suncheon Bay wetland reserve in South Korea. This could offer a relatively easy framework to achieving regulatory certification in the U.S., if San Jose identifies Ultra or Vectus to be of further interest. It should be noted the U.S. Department of Transportation already has an agreement with Sweden to cooperate on development of sustainable transportation.

Update 3:
And here's the smear now


  1. I think the problem of "lack of regulatory framework" isn't so much that we need one for PRT, but that, since the government has established itself as a force in transportation, there will eventually BE one for PRT, and actors are wary of moving forward unless and until that framework is established and stable. If they go ahead anyway, laws and regulations could easily be established later, which might force substantial changes in their plans, and worsen the economics of the proposition. Said another way, the inevitable regulatory environment covering PRT is a monster lurking in the shadows. People are hesitant to proceed until they have a better idea of the nature of and danger posed by that monster. I get that. I just think it is sad that the government can effectively hold this promising approach hostage on the basis of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

  2. I continue to be amazed at the degree to which libertarian types insist on denying the existence of the public sphere.

    I'm willing to discuss the location of the line between public and private, but TRANSIT definitely takes place in the former.

    Therefore, OF COURSE there should be public regulation, just as our food should be publicly inspected for disease and our medicines publicly analyzed for effectiveness and safety. Privatization of such functions would inevitably lead to profit-motivated corner cutting or favoritism.

    The picture in San Jose is not yet complete, as we need to see the full feasibility report to learn the answer to questions like what regulatory paths were considered, and why they were not appropriate.

    Certainly the 'demonstrated safety' standard, as used by Ultra and Vectus in the EU, ought to apply in the US as well. There undoubtedly was a regulatory process underway when Raytheon canceled PRT2000, I think it reasonable to suppose the San Jose process will be the cue to US or state DOTs to pick up that work again.

    Regulatory uncertainty is probably the last thing some American PRT designers should be worrying about. They should stop waiting for the arrival of libertarian utopia and just Get On With It.

    Otherwise, the regulatory process will be responding to the capabilities of Ultra, Vectus or 2getthere networks.

  3. I would LOVE to see a PRT system placed somewhere here in the US. It is a disheartening to see San Jose, the center of tech innovation, denying it's people a much better mode of transport because "it's never been done before." So glad Torvalds, Gates, Cerf, Gore, and Jobs didn't think that way.

    As a Michigander and a libertarian, even though I've only been through the San Jose airport a handful of times I would love to see the efficiency PRT start in San Jose. Austin, Minneapolis, and Santa Cruz are still considering it. Seems more fitting to have San Jose start the trend here.