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PRT – “personal rapid transit” – is one of those perennial concepts that never quite makes it.

An example of PRT is London’s Heathrow Airport ULTra, one of the few operational systems in the world. (http://www.ultraglobalprt.com/wheres-it-used/heathrow-t5/ ).

There is apparently a Seattle PRT advocacy group, judging by the website at http://www.gettherefast.org/ , although I haven’t seen anyone “representing” much on STB. The glorious vision of a typical PRT advocate is a citywide grid of grade-separated guideways, with autonomous “pods” carrying 1-4 passengers. Each trip is direct from origin to destination with no intermediate stops, automatically routed through the grid. As far as I know, nothing even close to this has ever been built.

I’ve been thinking of a variant of the PRT idea that has some worthwhile characteristics. Granted, it’s highly speculative…

In this concept, the PRT pods are designed with the goal of carrying a single bicycle, with its mounted rider. This, makes for a small, light pod, which is the most important cost factor in engineering the whole system. The closest approach I have seen to this small a PRT pod is the two-passenger proposal from ecoPRT in North Carolina http://ecoprt.com/ shown above. A major role of bicycle PRT in Seattle would be to get people up hills. Bicycle commuting (and other trips) would be attractive to many more people if they didn’t have to struggle up hills.

In the distant future, one can imagine the citywide-grid PRT vision, supporting relatively long-distance travel, above the traffic, protected from the weather. Since such a system is connecting “ride-sheds” rather than walksheds, it could place the entire city within 5 minutes of transit using a pretty coarse grid. Note that this vision dovetails perfectly with ubiquitous, cheap bikeshare (extrapolating from this year’s pilot program in Seattle).

I have no idea whether the grand vision of a PRT grid could ever pencil out. However it seems to me that a limited set of hill-hopping routes (primarily East-West) would very likely meet enough demand to justify themselves. They do not need the “network effect”: even one line would provide a valuable service. Even so, this sounds like a major investment in unproven technology. What we need first is a pilot project, a technology demonstrator. Such a pilot would most likely be a temporary installation, a learning experience.

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How could this work? I have my eye on Union Street from Alaskan Way up to 1st Ave with a middle stop at  Western/Post Alley. It’s a really short run, currently impassable by bike, in a busy neighborhood. It supports three stops, so that the PRT feature (bypassing unused stops) can be demonstrated. How could it be funded? I don’t claim to have any business sense, but one idea is that the initial demonstrator be a proprietary system installed by one of the bikeshare companies. Ride the PRT only on a Limebike, for example. Let the wild-eyed venture capitalists behind the new bikeshare companies take the risk. If it turns out to be technically sound, a public-access system can be built on the same principles, and deployed around the city in appropriate places.

5 Replies to “Bicycle PRT”

  1. There’s a good video on youtube (here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iaSaWfw07Sw) that explains what PRT is (though you’ve done that) and why it never took off. While PRT is perfect (though not the best option) for a small transit-centric college town as their spine of the network, for a big city like Seattle in my opinion it’s redundant. The SLU streetcar was supposed to be great, get all those commuters going to Westlake to amazon offices in South Lake Union (and various other purposes that also are barely utilized), and it was even pretty logical, but the backlash and failure feeling after low ridership has been enormous. I think, even as a pilot, building a track a few blocks for a private company would incite outrage and not ever work. Also, these small, “hill-hopping” or sprinter routes never tend to do too well. Even with the streetcar, in the rare situations I’m going to SLU on the light rail, if you miss the streetcar leaving Westlake, it’s usually the same speed to walk, and I think this won’t encourage any more bicycle commuters to the hills, so it’ll just be people who would already bike up deciding whether to get on an elevator, wait for a pod, take the ride up and take an elevator down, which could easily end up being slower. Also, a single bicycle pod would likely be extremely illogical, with groups being split up and ending up waiting for 10+ minutes just to get up, and a space that just isn’t normal transit. I’m honestly not sure though, but there’s enough transit skepticism in Seattle, so letting a private company build a radical new system in my opinion won’t be a great idea.

  2. Other ideas that come up around here for tackling short, steep urban hill-climbs include gondolas, public escalators (including “bike escalators”), and public elevators. This particular proposal is more the size of public elevators and escalators. An example of an existing accessibility-focused stair-climb helper is on the Galer Street overpass of Aurora, which mostly helps with transit accessibility (it’s at an E Line stop, and there’s no other accessible crossing of Aurora nearby). I don’t really know how or how well it works, personally. Unfortunately it only exists for the stairs up to the overpass, not the rest of the climb up to Queen Anne or down to Dexter.

    1. As I walked the stairs over the years, the equipment kept getting more and more vandalized, until, last I saw, it was mostly removed. Use it or lose it.

  3. When I first saw the words “bicycle PRT”, my first thought was the combination of the Burke-Gilman trail and bikeshare. The bikes are the vehicles, the trail is the track. By being flat, with minimal intersections and opportunities for delay, the whole thing works well, and certain trips, such as Fremont->U-district are even plodding at 10 mph on a bikeshare bike is still considerably faster and more reliable than the 31/32.

    However, after reading down, I become somewhat skeptical. For the vast majority if people, it’s easier to walk (even bikes, you can just walk them up a hill if you don’t want to ride them up the hill). So, the purpose basically becomes a way to get the elderly and disabled up the hill, who are unable to walk. You could probably get substantially more ridership, at similar cost, by simply building an escalator up the hill, following the grade of the street (widening the sidewalk to make room of course, since you can’t squeeze all pedestrians onto the escalator). Unlike special “PRT” pods, an escalator is something very intuitive that virtually everybody knows how to use, and can hop on without waiting.

    While I’m not convinced that an escalator up Marion from the waterfront to 3rd is the best use of funding (it would not be cheap, and would need frequent maintenance, exposed to the outdoor elements), it still ranks in my mind as more useful than the City Center Connector Streetcar, at probably similar cost.

  4. Like all good ideas, you are not alone. Check out the Shweeb-

    http://shweeb.com/index.php?m=transport

    Not sure what is keeping this from growing beyond the New Zealand amusement park where it lives, but I think this would be the coolest tourist attraction Seattle could build and I can’t see why it couldn’t become a real transportation solution, other than the terrible name of course.

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