Personal Rapid Transit - Current Systems, Outlook, and Pros and Cons

The West Virginia University PRT system in Morgantown. from wikipedia and Michalovic

Personal Rapid Transit - Current Systems, Outlook, and Pros and Cons

Personal rapid transit (PRT) refers to any transit system that attempts to combine the merits of a rapid transit system with the convenience of an automobile. Always grade-separated and (usually) on elevated guideways, most envisioned PRT systems involve small car-like pods providing door-to-door service away from traffic. As of October 2014 the only operating PRT-like system is found at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

West Virginia University - The Only Current Example of PRT In America

The best (and really only) example of PRT in the United States is found at West Virginia University in Morgantown. Opening in 1975, the idea for the PRT system was born in the late 1960s in the wake of interest and federal funding for mass transit technologies besides the usual subway and commuter rail suspects. Then West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd was responsible for the test system being built in Morgantown. The first phase that opened in 1975 consisted of 5.2 miles of elevated guideway, 45 vehicles, and three stations. The original cost estimate of $15-20 million ballooned to $60 million in 1975 dollars, which equates to about $240 million in today's money. The $46 million per mile cost is less than the common cost of $100 million per mile for today's light rail line, but is much greater than the average $4 million per mile cost for bus rapid transit .

Streetcars under construction in late 2014 have a similar cost per mile to the Morgantown PRT, with the Detroit streetcar costing about $42 million per mile to build. A further expansion in 1978-1979 added another 3.4 miles of guideway, two additional stations, and twenty-six additional vehicles.

As an example of a totally segregated guideway with automatic operation, the PRT has extremely high on-time performance, has reduced traffic in downtown Morgantown, and has had no injuries since it began operation. It currently transports about 16,000 passengers per day and 2.25 million rides per year.

Because the vehicles are fifteen feet six inches long, they carry too many people to be truly considered PRT, acting more like small buses. In addition, "demand" mode, one of three operation modes (the other being "schedule" and "circulation") and the only true PRT mode in that it carries passengers directly to their destination stop and does not stop at in between stations, only operates during off-peak hours during times of low demand. At times of higher ridership "schedule", which operates a series of what could be considered express bus routes, and "circulation", which stops at all stops like a local bus route, operate.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Personal Rapid Transit

One benefit of PRT is that it can offer effective segregated right-of-way transportation at a much lower cost than traditional light or heavy rail because the very light weight of cars compared with rail vehicles (a car can weigh as little as 600 pounds while a light rail car can weigh 100,000 pounds or more empty) results in elevated guideways that can be much cheaper than usual because they do not need to support as much weight.

Another is that by avoiding unwanted stops like an elevator, a journey on it can be faster than it would be on a normal transit service.

The main drawback to personal rapid transit is the very low capacity of a system . For example, personal rapid transit could carry cars of four people every ten seconds for a total of twenty-four people per minute or 1,440 people per hour. In comparison, a typical at-grade light rail train could carry 450 people every five minutes or 5,400 people per hour, and the New York subway can easily carry more than 30,000 people per hour. The ten second headway assumes there is enough room at stations to allow several vehicles to board and alight simultaneously to avoid backups and delays on the main line. A successful PRT system could easily become overwhelmed at peak hours; even the New York subway system has become so crowded that officials are urging people to take the bus instead.

In addition, the more "P" the RT is the more it will cost and the more unsightly the guideways will be. While the West Virginia example and a proposal for a system in Raleigh, NC view the PRT as kind of a normal rail transit system with much smaller vehicles, others envision a PRT system as providing door-to-door operation to jobs, businesses, and residences. Such a comprehensive system would quickly encompass an area with extreme cost and infrastructure blight.

Outlook for Personal Rapid Transit

Apart from a proposal in Raleigh, discussion of new PRT projects is limited to blog postings by advocates of the mode. I believe self-driving cars , which are projected to become available as soon as 2020, will provide many of the benefits of PRT without the need to purchase special vehicles or construct guideways and stations.

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MacKechnie, Christopher. "Personal Rapid Transit - Current Systems, Outlook, and Pros and Cons." ThoughtCo, Aug. 6, 2016, MacKechnie, Christopher. (2016, August 6). Personal Rapid Transit - Current Systems, Outlook, and Pros and Cons. Retrieved from MacKechnie, Christopher. "Personal Rapid Transit - Current Systems, Outlook, and Pros and Cons." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 24, 2017).