Despite my mania for all manner of irresponsible personal vehicles, I’m actually a public-transportation nut. A few of the reasons:
• I can read, check email, send text messages, or catch a few winks while I’m zipping to my destination
• I have built-in motivation for walking, given that I have to get to and from the bus or train stop
• I feel good that my ride isn’t fueled by the conversion of fossilized sea life into impending climate catastrophe
• I get to trade small talk and occasional newspaper sections with fellow transit riders.
But I know you have your very good reasons for being among the 98 percent of the population that shuns public transportation:
• You can read, check email, send text messages, or catch a few winks while you’re swerving into oncoming traffic and pedestrians
• You have built-in motivation for stopping at Wendy’s for celebration takeout, given that you haven’t had to walk more than nine consecutive steps the entire day
• You feel good about the copious burning of hydrocarbons, which is creating valuable new beachfront property
• You get to trade hand gestures and occasional gunfire with fellow traffic jammers.
Ok, go ahead and sneer at my bus through the windshield of your Range Rollover. Thanks to some snazzy high-tech upgrades coming to public transit over the next several years, I’ll have the last laugh. Surely you’d envy me, for example, were my bus to suddenly lower four large metal wheels next to its tires and jump onto nearby rail tracks to go roaring off past your Toyota Highballer and all the other traffic. Or were my bus to pass over the roof of your Porsche Careen, supported on giant stilts with wheels that ran on either side of the road. Or, perhaps most impressive, were my commuter train to fly by you—really, actually fly by, lifted a few feet in the air by side-mounted wings.
Well, get ready to gawk. The next time you’re in Asia, that is, because the track-riding bus and the flying train are Japanese projects in prototypes (at Toyota and Tohoku University, respectively), and a stilted bus has been developed in China.
Sadly, the west lags the east in enthusiasm for visionary, if slightly deranged, transit schemes. That’s partly because we lack the motivation provided by the epic traffic jams in some Asian countries that can leave drivers stuck for as long as days, notes Jerry Schneider, a civil engineering professor emeritus at the University of Washington at Seattle, who continues to study rapid transit. “Their situation is much worse than ours, and getting worse,” he notes. China built 18 million cars in 2011, more than the United States did and a third more than the number from just two years earlier.
But the United States doesn’t exactly suffer from a traffic shortage, and I’m not the only one here who would just as soon opt out of the SUV demolition derby playing out daily in our streets. Public-transit ridership has in fact been steadily rising in this country since 1995, and the coming wave of baby-boomer retirees will most likely keep pushing those numbers higher. In response, the Western half of the U.S., which has long trailed the Northeast in developing mass transportation, is in the midst of a 20-year, $150 billion public-transit spree. Salt Lake City alone has invested $3 billion since 1999.
No flying trains headed for anywhere in the U.S., but Schneider points to a slightly less radical approach to tomorrow’s transit that could pick up some of that money: personal rapid transit. PRT, as transit geeks call it, is sort of like a miniature trolley or monorail, but utilizing much smaller, driverless vehicles that don’t run scheduled routes.
The point is to eliminate the four main reasons people whine about mass transit: having to get to and from a station or bus stop; having to wait for the bus or train to arrive; having to make a bunch of stops and possibly change buses or trains; and being stuck with a large group of people who may be as crabby as you are about the whole ordeal. “It can be difficult getting to a station, and then the train takes you somewhere you don’t particularly want to go,” as Schneider puts it.
Because PRT vehicles are just large enough to hold around five people, their track and stations can be smaller and hence much, much cheaper—about one-fifth the $100-million-per-mile cost of a conventional light-rail system. Lower cost could make it economically feasible to build far more stations, so you shouldn’t have to go far to get to one, and the boarding stations could even be built into buildings.