Personal Rapid Transit: Future Or Elevated Fantasy? Transportation planners are banking on a futuristic network of ecofriendly computer-automated pod cars as the next smart form of mass transit. Several U.S. cities are doing feasibility studies for personal rapid transit systems, and Britain's Heathrow Airport plans to launch its system in the spring.
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Personal Rapid Transit: Future Or Elevated Fantasy?

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Personal Rapid Transit: Future Or Elevated Fantasy?

Personal Rapid Transit: Future Or Elevated Fantasy?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Now, two stories about innovations in automobile safety, as part of our series called "On The Road To Safety." In a moment, we'll hear about so-called aging suits that help engineers feel like what - feel what it's like to drive for the elderly. First, a system that deletes the driver from the equation all together. It's called personal rapid transit, or pod cars. The idea is to deliver the convenience of the car without the pollution or congestion.

Reporter Cathy Duchamp explains.

CATHY DUCHAMP: To understand how pod cars work, you have to go back to the future. Check out this clip from a 1958 Disney TV show called �Magic Highway, USA.�

(Soundbite of movie, �Magic Highway, USA�)

Unidentified Man: Tomorrow's living in spacious, well-planned communities will be closely integrated with the highway system.

DUCHAMP: The animated film shows a family piling into a pod-shaped vehicle - no wheels and no driver.

(Soundbite of movie, �Magic Highway, USA�)

Unidentified Man: Electronics take over complete control.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Progress can be accurately checked on a synchronized scanning map.

DUCHAMP: Now imagine a time when pod cars are added to the mix of bus and rail transit. A system actually exists today on the campus of West Virginia University.

(Soundbite of beep)

Mr. HUGH KIERIG (Director, Personal Rapid Transit; Morgantown, West Virginia) We can transport, under optimum conditions, about 4,000 people an hour. It's quite a scene when you see all those vehicles out riding the guide way.

DUCHAMP: That's Hugh Kierig. He's in charge of the nation's first personal rapid transit, or PRT system, in Morgantown, West Virginia. It opened in 1975.

Mr. KIERIG: Thirty-five years ago, this was high-tech and top of the line.

DUCHAMP: Bright blue and yellow pods, the size of minibuses, zip students along roads made just for them.

(Soundbite of closing door)

DUCHAMP: You pick your destination before you get on. Then you go there directly, no stops in between. Kierig says the problem is that the system is retro - and not in a good way.

Mr. KIERIG: You know, now students view it as being slow, bumpy. It's sort of like the difference between a passenger rail of the late 19th century versus airplane transportation.

DUCHAMP: Kierig wants to give his PRT a 21st century upgrade. But it's not that easy because to date, no other personal rapid transit system has been built in the United States. Call it an odd duck that never took flight. But there is enthusiasm for pod cars across the Atlantic.

Mr. STEVE RAINEY (ULTra PRT): There's three stations and 18 vehicles, and there is some planning in the works to extend it to the entire airport.

DUCHAMP: That's Steve Rainey, sales guy for ULTra PRT, a company that's building a personal rapid transit system at Heathrow Airport, outside London. It's scheduled to open this spring. The beige, bug-eyed pods hold five passengers with luggage. Battery power gives them green cache.

Mr. RAINEY: I think it has gone - for me - from this journey of being kind of a weirdo pushing exotic technology to more acceptance and more doors opened.

DUCHAMP: Several American cities are now doing PRT feasibility studies: Ithaca, New York; San Jose, California; and a group in Minnesota, among others. Rainey can see a day when people will choose pod transit over driving alone.

Mr. RAINEY: For people's commutes driving alone in traffic, it's not like they love their cars so much. You know, it's not quite the love affair. It's much more that it's the least worse of a series of alternatives that nobody really likes that much.

DUCHAMP: But would people really switch to a driverless pod? Jon Carnegie leads the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University.

Mr. JON CARNEGIE (Executive Director, Voorhees Transportation Center, Rutgers University): I think it will be really interesting to see over the next decade how energy prices impact the way people are choosing to travel. And the more people decide that they would like to use modes other than the car, we may actually see a greater level of innovation.

DUCHAMP: Carnegie thinks Atlantic City would be a great place to test pod cars stateside. There are lots of tourists who need to get around and a gambling culture that may be willing roll the dice on something new.

For NPR News, I'm Cathy Duchamp.

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