Sunday, June 12, 2011

The debate

So, as you know, I am an advocate for the concept of PRT. It doesn't mean I'm against other options, but in my research, I've begun to notice that on the internet, there appear to be two distinct, vocal camps who seem to despise each other. The PRT camp versus the urban gondola camp. My attention to this debate was focused after my discussion with an urban transit planner at the City of Calgary, who seemed to be leaning toward the gondola solution and not quite interested in the PRT solution for last mile transit. After watching and in some cases, participating in the debate, I came across this very intelligent offering in my email. It's an automatic alert as the result of the comment being posted on a transit forum. But the comment doesn't appear yet, which could mean that the moderator is censoring it out - I'm not sure. So Dave, without your explicit permission, I'm posting it here for all to see. It's a great summary of the debate currently taking place between the two camps. It's long, but it's a great read. It even features some of my own observations.

Author: Dave Brough

In defense of PRT
What 'got' here is two 'lobbies' with a fail-ya to communicate: the Urban Gondola (UG) lobby, and the PRT lobby. The one-man UG 'lobby' is a self-admitted (and proud of it) 'Bigmouth from Toronto”. He is not an engineer nor, by his own admission, is he a journalist. But he is interested in CPT and is particularly vocal about applying it to urban settings.
The PRT industry is composed of highly technical people, many of them engineers. In this context, it is represented by another self-appointed big mouth from Toronto: yours truly. I'm not an engineer, but I do have 45 solid years of innovation and manufacturing experience. So let's get started.

UG lobby: “The PRT lobby claims it can move large amounts of people over huge networks with dozens of off-line stations and completely private vehicles.”
PRT lobby: True. In fact, PRT not only claims that it can move “large amounts of people over huge networks, with dozens of off-line stations, and completely private vehicles”, it has the utter audacity to claim that it can do it 'more, better, 'less” (more efficiently, better headways, less obtrusive and FAR less expensive) than any other form of transport, gondola included. Add “bigger” (pax movements) and hotter or colder (as the situation demands), remove messy overhead utility cables, add street lighting, brew your morning java and even give you a massage (remember the sauna gondola?).
UG lobby: “(Not so fast). You can't define your technology as some massive improvement over all others but never have a working demonstration”
PRT lobby: “And why not?!” We've had several working demonstrators, going back to CabinTaxi that, 'by definition' (whatever that means), even in the mid-70's demonstrated split-second switching, half-second headways, and easy escape (no helos needed). Cabin Taxi even demonstrated a unique over-under concept that doubled capacity and has had a variant (CabinLift) operating between two remote German hospital campuses for 40 years.
UG lobby: “Urban Gondolas and CPT is not defined by the size of the network, nor off-line stations, nor completely private vehicles.”
PRT lobby: OK, but let's get the rules straight. “What, exactly, IS CPT defined 'by'...?” But even at that, should transit that can easily expand its network, (easily and cheaply) incorporate off-line stations, and have private vehicles – as is the case with PRT - NOT receive some attention?
UG Lobby: “We’ve never suggested urban gondolas as a replacement for all other transit forms. We suggest it as one of many tools, a complementary system.”
PRT lobby: You're putting words in our mouths. PRT has never made the 'all things to all transit'-argument. In fact, what I've seen is that it is primarily intended for dense urban applications.
UG lobby: “You need only look to Medellin, Caracas, Algeria, Portland, Telluride and NYC to see that urban gondolas very much do exist.”
PRT lobby: WTF...? I mean what?! Okay, let's take that look. Medellin, Caracas and Algeria are 'urban' and they're 'gondola', sure, but do they meet the definition of 'urban gondola' in the sense that they compete with (or compliment, take your pick) BRT or LRT? Hardly. They are unique applications designed to circumvent geography. Moreover, they would never-never-never be considered as 'modern urban transit' because a) no air; b) no heat; c) they don't fly low; d) rescue by helo or winch-down would never fly; e) stations are horrendously large and expensive, and difficult-to-impossible to extend without throwing a lot of money at the wall.
Portland, and NYC? Sure, they're also 'urban', but again, they're being used to 'jump' geography (getting up a steep hill - Portland, and a wide river - NYC). And, according to the UG lobby, both use 'tram' technology unsuited to UG.
Telluride. TELLURIDE...?! Whaaat?? How'd that get in here. it's not even UG. It runs up a mountainside to link two very rural communities.
So what have we in UG's shining examples? Read my lips: ZERO!. The only opportunity presented that had any semblance of an urban gondola was right here where I live (place called Ogden, Utah). And boy, did the UG lobby jump all over that one.
UG Lobby: “PRT can’t have it both ways: You can’t define your technology as some massive improvement over all others but never actually have a working demonstration piece”.
PRT lobby: Is there an echo in this room? Our point, exactly. UG is NOT a massive improvement, nor does it have one SINGLE “working demonstration piece”! On the other hand, PRT IS a massive improvement that has had several working examples, and more are coming on line every day (okay, okay. Maybe not every day). But it's getting a lot of traction.
UG lobby: “We don’t claim (urban) gondolas to be a mass improvement over all other things.”
PRT lobby: Good thing, too. Until CPT shapes out and ships up, it's not a mass improvement over nuthin'.
UG lobby: “(UG) simply is what it is. And what it is, demonstrably exists. That’s the difference.”
PRT lobby: Sure fooled us. Gondola demonstrably exists - in thousands of incarnations. But UG is demonstrably conspicuous by the existence of a SINGLE working demonstration piece. On the other hand, there was Cabin Taxi (and several others) and there IS Morgantown, there is Heathrow, there IS Masdar, and soon, there will be many more.
UG lobby: “We’ve demonstrated on this site how the average speed of a gondola is comparable to existing standard modes.”
PRT lobby: Woo woo. We're impressed. Really. In fact, we think that you've demonstrated that the average speed of a gondola actually exceeds existing modes. And when there's a breakdown of existing modes, or at least PRT/streetcar, it VASTLY exceeds existing standard modes. Not only that, it is vastly safer. We give you that, too!
UG lobby: “We’ve shown that gondolas are more than capable of meeting the moderate capacity needs of bus and mid-range LRTs. We’ve shown that they do, indeed, “work.”
PRT lobby: If you're talking about moving people, sure. Ski lifts have shown that for years. And the purported urban gondolas in the third world have shown that that if you ignore flying over back yards and if it's okay to cook people, they 'work' in the same way that buses 'work'. The problem is, they don't 'work' when it comes to fulfilling what modern riders demand of modern transit. Did I mention heat? And air. And low flying, ground level stations. And half-second headways, or switching, or easy expansion, or networking, (or nitpicking).
UG lobby: “The only thing maybe we’ve never shown is that they be networked.”
PRT lobby: Did I mention heat or air or half-second headway or switching or networking or making coffee?
UG lobby. “If (we haven't shown that they can be networked on on-line switching, or off-line stations, it's) because that’s not the definition of the technology.
PRT lobby: It's not? Oh...! Then again, when it comes to urban applications, we say the “definition of the technology” is the ability to meet the needs society puts to it. And we say that in modern-day America, Canada, Europe, Asia, and yes, even Medellin, society needs the amenities that modern transit offers.
UG lobby: “...we’ve shown the technology to be fully-capable of full-integration with all other modes of public transit (subway, bus and tram/LRT).”
PRT lobby: You have...? You could 'network' the technology with the Space Shuttle if you had enough space (oh, my) and money. Speaking of money, this begets an interesting question: “Why, pray tell, has the famous SFU gondola suddenly doubled in price - to $120 million?” Answer: Because the UG station interface is horrendously large and horribly complicated, it is outrageously expensive. And if they're talking $120 'now', what's it going to really cost (shades of Portland – or any other transit project - which was sold to the public on the basis that it would cost $15 million, but ended up at $57 million – nearly 4 times). Who's for putting money on SFU, if it gets built, ending up at $200 million?
UG lobby: “You certainly don’t have to consider urban gondolas, but to deny them is like saying the sky is green.”
PRT lobby: Have it your way: the sky IS green. And it's not covered in urban gondolas either. And until UG schmartens up, never will be.

@ Karl “...the system should be able to offer multiple routes to a destination to offer shortcuts (to reduce time in transit) and to bypass problems in the system (broken down vehicles or pods or gondolas). I have yet to see a gondola system that offers this level of flexibility.

Me either, Karl. By way of example, last weekend I rode one of the few remaining CPT rides still being operated at amusement parks, this one at “Lagoon”, just north of Salt Lake City. (This in itself invites a post entitled “Why are there no new gondolas being installed in theme parks? And why have most of them been removed? I recall riding Disney's
$300 thousand (in 1956 dollars would have been $2.5 million today. But it wouldn't come close to replacing the ride) Skyride went right through Magic Mountain one year, only to find it mountained-over the next. So, why?)
Back to Lagoon, right in the middle of the ride, with maybe a 100' drop, it suddenly jerked to a stop, everything now swaying from momentum. “Oh my God! Oh my God!”, screamed a lady in the car right opposite and covering her eyes. “I knew we shouldn't have gotten on this thing!” Fortunately for her, a certain gondola affectionado assured her that the wait was just temporary, probably just because they needed to help someone getting on or off. And sure enough, maybe 30 seconds later we were off and running. Only to stop again. And again.
UG lobby: “Pot calls the kettle black". PRT has never demonstrated the flexibility to offer multiple routes to a destination or offer shortcuts and to bypass problems either.”
PRT lobby: Kettle calls the pot a crockpot. Check the CabinTaxi video and eat your heart out. There are vivid examples of switching, of half. But then again, does it need to? When Boeing or Airbus decides to invest several billion dollars in bringing a new airliner into the world, they don't need to build a demonstrator. They not only build every single part on a computer, they 'fly' it on a computer. And they're confident enough that they will take tens of millions of dollars in orders before the first one actually flies. And when it finally does fly, lo and behold, it performs exactly as expected. One of the fundamental differences between GT and PRT is the fact that GT is a like a subway system, a 'tube' where everything gets constricted down to one line. PRT, on the other hand, just like the taxicab it's intended to replace, offers the flexibility of multiple lines, this giving the system the flexibility and the choice of choosing the best route.
Example. We're in Toronto on one of its main intersections, Yonge and Eglington. We want to get to Harbourfront, a straight shot 8 miles south and on the lakefront. If we were making the trip by transit, it would be one choice: the Yonge Subway (and a short car ride). If, for whatever reason, there were a breakdown (or maybe a driver passes out and rear-ends another train), the whole line would be shut down (I know from personal experience that it can be shut down for a lot less than that: I personally once shut down the entire Bloor line for 20 minutes. Actually, they shut it down for me). But let's hail a cab. First off, the driver would have sense enough (he's a PhD, like all Toronto cabbies) not even to consider Yonge St. He would take one of the arteries (Maybe Avenue Rd. several blocks west, or Bayview, several blocks east), then pretty well due south. These days, with GPS, he would have traffic following and know precisely which route to take. But the TTC rider – like the gondola rider – has no choice. One line, one straight shot.
And here's another thing thing. If your trip is in the off-hours, your pretty well stuck. But PRT, like the cab, is time insensitive: you want it: you ride it.
UG Lobby: “To a very small extent, PRT exists at Heathrow. As for your plans at Masdar . . . Have you looked them up lately? Masdar’s basically dead in the water. It’s now a point-to-point, 2 station people mover.”
PRT lobby: I'm wondering what this lobby's comment would have been to Wilbur and Orville. “Gee, fellas, you only flew 120 feet. You're basically dead in the air. Get a life”.
UG lobby: “(London and Masdar don't) quite live up to all that PRT presupposes it to, does it?”
PRT lobby: Even the journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step. This is our first step. Then again, using Heathrow and Masdar as examples of PRT is unfortunate. And more to the point, there are those of us touting other forms of PRT, when people use London or Masdar as examples of PRT, we are, well, embarrassed. In fact, let's use the L-word: lam-barrassed. To paraphrase an earlier posting (Ogden UT urban gondola), it's unfortunate that PRT and London and Masdar are so inextricably linked, but so be it. Same with Morgantown.
Using London and Masdar as PRT poster boys is like classifying ALL CPT as 'Tram'. And I'm sure I'm not the only person looking at the glorified golf carts of Heathrow or Masdar, then shaking his head in disbelief. It's like comparing a kid's tricycle to the Concord. They'll both get you there, one is just a tad faster.
ULTra of London and 2GetThere's Masdar both follow the Morgantown (which isn't PRT at all, but MST: Mass Slow Transit) approach of tarting up golf carts to run on a dedicated roadway. Sort of a mini BRT, except no driver (but enough 'watchers' that you might as well have drivers). If you wanted to elevate it – like Morgantown – you would have to elevate the entire street, not unlike a monorail, only wider. And just as expensive.
On the other hand, 'real' PRT (at least to this lobbyist, maybe a few others) uses the 'suspended' approach. Think 'curtain track'. The curtain (the PRT car, aka 'pod') hangs from a slot in a rod that is suspended from above the window. Same deal with suspended PRT: the pod hangs from a slot in an elevated rail. The main difference between PRT and CPT is that PRT is self-propelled. That gives it advantages and disadvantages – although those of us in the PRT lobby say advantage-PRT.
Returning to the present prime examples of London and Masdar, this lobbyist claims that these are hardly Personal RAPID Transit: they're personal, all right, but moving along at a snail's pace, they are hardly Rapid. Which why I've renamed them PST - Personal Slow Transit.
There is NOT one urban CPT on the ENTIRE planet that a) has heat; b) has AC; can 'fly' just above traffic; c) can act like transit in the sense that stops are bus stops sized; d) can be placed
UG lobby: “My problem with PRT is that it over-promises and under-delivers – for the last 60 years.”
PRT lobby: My problem with UG is that its main proponent over-promises and doesn't deliver a thing. My problem with PRT is that it's never been given a chance TO deliver what it promises.
UG lobby: “When it comes to CPT, we’re not promising much more than a cost-effective system to solve last mile problems with LT1M wait times. CPT has proven itself capable of solving that problem. PRT hasn’t been able to prove it after 60 years.”
PRT lobby: Au contraire. PRT has demonstrated and proven half-second headway. That beats the pants off gondola. As for the rest, don't get me started!

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