A look at a unique automated transit system that represents an idea people have proposed from time to time but never became mainstream.

21 Replies to “Sunday Open Thread: Morgantown”

  1. What’s max passenger load, actual and not theoretical? And what’re max grade, max heat, max dirt, and max stress? And what’s the structure like to live next to? Or see past? What’s the soil under the pillars?

    However, there are advantages over last imitation covered in these pages. Everything present and future resting on long experience with things that overheated, cracked, or, if a steel wheel, went flat. And also well-tried means to evacuate the survivors. Left.

    Under the leadership of someone who does not consider labor unions to be conspiratory sabotage. And whom Nicola Tesla himself would ever hire to change a flashlight battery. But most of all, since we’re talking altered space-time here, be a CEO whose business suit is not a hoodie with a logo, with a hair cut appropriate to an age where everything structural and mechanical had at minimum one Scotsman in charge.



    Who’d unbolt and throw the the car company radiator ornament on the hood or every unit, into a barrel of filings. But ’til then…where’s Ben Schiendelman when we need him?


  2. What the show doesn’t say is that the Heathrow system was much cheaper to install and more flexible than the WVU system because the guidance doesn’t require tracks. The WVU system is a great, expensive prototype and it is still valuable 40 years later; it’s only now that a driverless shuttle option is cost-feasible to install widely — and many places have development underway across the world.

    Calling it Personal Rapid Transit is also probably not the best idea for selling it to a voting public funding a system. Driverless Shuttle Transit seems more appropriate.

    1. What? There are no tracks in the Morgantown system. The cars have steerable wheels which turn like a bus’s.

    2. If you think of the whole road system as the tracks, “PRT” has actually existed in virtually all major cities for nearly a century, albeit at much higher labor cost than the Morgantown system. It used be called “taxis”. Today, it’s called “Uber” and “Lyft”.

  3. Anyone ever ridden the C-Train in Calgary or the LRT in Edmonton. I haven’t but they both have excellent ridership for light rail systems in relatively sprawled out cities (especially Calgary). I’d love to get more insight on what they’re doing right. Anyone who travels these places should do a report card blog post!

    1. Calgary has Land use policies that concentrates oofice jobs downtown, plus a cap on car parking spaces downtown. Over the years parking lots have disappeared under towers. You can have great transit use with housing sprawl, as long as employment is concentrated in just a few locations.

      1. That’s exactly true. Transit can work when one end of the commute trip is concentrated into one or two, maybe three, major centers. Transit can’t do the distributed work environment AND the distributed housing environment.

        Most modern American cities have gone for the distributed work environment and hence are impossible to serve with transit efficiently. And that is a tragedy for all humanity when the nation is run by servants of the fossil fuel industries.

      2. On the contrary, having all the employment concentrated in one place means everybody is commuting the one direction in the morning and the other direction in the afternoon. So, even if the trains are running completely full in the peak direction, they have to go back the other way empty, so the actual productivity is a less than what it seems.

        For optimal transit ridership, you need something like the 545, 550, or the downtown->UW section of Link, with heavy concentrations of both homes and jobs on both ends, so people are riding both directions, both morning and afternoon. Note, in particular, that the above routes allow reverse-commuters to walk directly from the express bus/train to their job, without having to wait for another connection to complete the trip. That is hugely important to get people to ride it.

        Distributed housing also creates last-mile problems, which are difficult to solve without giant park-and-rides, which cost tens of thousands of dollars, per space, to build, and create their own traffic problems around the stations.

      3. Which city has more effective transit: New York, Los Angeles, or San Jose? How does the job layout make transit easier or harder? What about London? New York has a very strong Manhattan bias in both jobs and cultural activities. Los Angeles’ jobs are much more distributed: down is large but not dominant. San Jose has a large percentage of jobs scattered in outlying office parks. London to me seems to have jobs more distributed than in New York, but in a compact, transit-friendly way rather than a car-dependent way.

        I think the best situation is a downtown core and medium-density mixed-use neighborhoods in at least half of the city. That gives the efficiency of downtown jobs without being so ovewhelming that parts of the city are empty at certain hours. The mixed-use neighborhoods have businesses that draw people from elsewhere, so there’s a strong reverse commute and crosstown commutes, so the transit ridership is robust both directions all day. If you look at San Francisco’s middle third (between downtown and the Sunset residential district), Vancouver’s West End, Chicago’s North Side — large 2-dimensional urban villages — there are always people traveling crosstown to work at or patronize neighborhood businesses. Compare that to Factoria or Issaquah, where you practically have to drive to work there, and the population is so scattered behind large parking lots that it’s hard for transit to serve the area efficiently and people are more reluctant to use it because they have to walk so far through soulless parking lots and half a mile to get a few buildings over. New York I think is too Manhattan-centric: London seems like a better model, or maybe something in between would be best.

      4. Mike,

        What you’re talking about is all-day transit — “there are always people traveling crosstown to work at or patronize neighborhood businesses” . That’s important to a place like San Francisco which is sufficiently dense even in the Sunset and outer Richmond that everyone can’t have a car.

        But there really aren’t that many “jobs” between Van Ness and Arguello except restaurant and convenience store clerks plus USF. There is a hospital and a Target at Masonic, but that’s about it. Those folks for the most part don’t participate in the rush-hour commute. They go to work earlier or later and the same for returning home.

        Don’t get me wrong, please. I’m certainly in favor of a robust all-day network to serve people who can’t afford personal transportation or who for reasons noble or otherwise choose not to use a car to get to work and back. But we cannot lose sight of the reality that a concentrated job core like Seattle’s is far easier to serve with transit that the smeared out multi-multi-centered craziness that is LA. Downtown LA has great transit; Wilshire Boulevard has great transit. Everywhere else? Rapid Buses stuck in traffic is as good as it gets.

        But a couple of million jobs are on those Rapid lines. Still, the vast majority of people above the poverty line choose to drive.

      5. asdf, I agree that the distributed housing end creates problems, but you’re not going to get everyone to live in Chicago or Brooklyn walk-ups. That simply ain’t gonna happen in the Yew Ess of Ay.

      6. I agree with Eric, a report about transit in Calgary would be very interesting. My guess is the light rail was done fairly cheaply (no tunnels — even in downtown). But it manages to go fast enough. Wikipedia has a section about the (somewhat unexpected) success of the light rail system. It is pretty much what “rational plan” said (land use policy concentrating office jobs downtown along with lack of parking and no easy way to drive there).

        But I think there is more to it than that. If you look at the census data for Calgary, you can see that there are quite a few people right in the urban core. This is not the type of downtown that becomes empty at 5:00 PM (the way that much of Seattle’s did back in the day). The downtown area is fairly linear as well (like ours) which means that a lot of people may be going back and forth during the day. As it turns out, not only is the train reasonably fast and frequent, but it is also free. Travel within downtown is free (like it was in Seattle years ago).

        I’ll admit it is a bit hard to make comparisons to U. S. cities (because of the difference in measurements) but if my math is correct, then there are pockets of decent density outside of downtown. Nothing very urban, but around 25,000 per square mile. Places like this (https://goo.gl/maps/dwrLwVg2mGF2) look like classic suburbia, but that is similar in density to parts of Capitol Hill. So it isn’t like the city is made up of a concentrated downtown with nothing but track housing on giant lots surrounding it (even though it looks like it from the air).

        My guess is most of the entertainment in the town is either downtown or by the university — both of which are served well by the train. The university is good size as well (around 25,000 students) although I don’t know if they are all on that campus. One last factor appears to be pretty good complimentary bus service.

        I’m sure a lot of the success is due to the fact that so much is concentrated right downtown. Not only the jobs, but also people and entertainment. But I think there is a bit more than that, and would like to know more.

      7. It shows the different priorities in Canada. Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal all have better land use policies, transit plans, and transit capital funding and authorization on average than most American cities do. It shows up in Toronto’s New York-like ridership, access to places, and vast mixed-use areas; in Vancouver’s highly successful downtown and West End, its Metrotown village/mall, its new satellite city in Surrey, and its small highrise clusters around Skytrain stations between them. In Calgary’s light rail, where even though the sprawls like a post-WWII city, its nevertheless concentrated enough to have three times the ridership of similar US cities. Part of that is because more jobs are located within walking distance of transit trunks rather than in car-dependent office parks.

      8. Oops, I forgot to link to the census map for Calgary (https://censusmapper.ca/maps/302#12/51.0409/-114.0700).

        In terms of Canada versus the U. S., I think it is more about execution versus priorities. If you look at light rail lines by length (a reasonable proxy for cost) you can see that the U. S. cities hold their own. The only Canadian city in the top ten is Toronto (for their streetcars — which were built a long time ago). The U. S. has invested heavily in light rail in the last fifty years — they just haven’t gotten as much out of it. When you look at ridership, or ridership per mile, the Canadians start jumping to the top. If you look at heavy rail, it is much the same thing. There are exceptions (Boston with light rail, D. C. with heavy rail) but generally speaking, in the post-war period, the Canadians have generated much better bang for the buck in recent decades.

        Land use has a lot to do with it, certainly. Toronto is a huge city (like New York) so it has plenty of density in the urban core despite the tremendous sprawl. Montreal is an old city, and thus has built up density over the years. Vancouver has managed to grow mostly in the center of town. More liberal zoning policies as well as lack of freeways (and the geography) had a lot to do with that. Calgary is a special case because (for whatever reason) they decided not to increase the number of freeways to downtown, while keeping most of the growth there, and charging a lot for parking. I don’t think Edmonton has done the same thing. Their light rail isn’t as popular, but it still carries quite a few people per mile.

        Which gets back to the key thing — Canadian cites have focused more on quality rather than quantity. They have made their share of mistakes, and building things out of order (the UBC line should have been built years ago). But by and large, there systems are more compact, even when their cities aren’t (as with Calgary). You can make a circle within a ten mile radius of downtown and fit in every station in Calgary (albeit just barely). In contrast, Seattle — a city far more compact — can’t do that with it’s light rail line. Nor are we alone. Newer U. S. systems in general have focused on distance, rather than the central part of town, unlike the Canadians.

    2. One cannot ignore the effect of prolonged cold, snowy weather. It encourages people to live closer together. It also encourages employers to huddle near each other and not sequester themselves in a suburban office park. Finally it can be easier to take transit to work when one doesn’t have to clean snow off of it and defrost an icy windshield.

      I’ll also mention that the Univerdity of Calgary is 6 miles from Downtown and on the light rail. That’s something we do with UW Seattle, although several of our other smaller universities’ fates with light rail convenience is hopefully possible but could also happen badly.

    3. Calgary, what an interesting big city. Oddly, there are communities in NE Washington that are closer (in drive time) to Calgary than Seattle. It’s a city of over a million in our backyard that most people aren’t even aware exists. Even their US TV is from Spokane affiliates.

      Even weirder, is that is feels more like Dallas (minus the heat and humidity) than anything Canadian. Heck, it makes Seattle feel like a European capital. But, their light rail is definitely well used, and it never felt empty bi-directionally throughout the day. It was easy to get to the university, and it drops you to within walking distance of most “important” places. I never rode into the far flung suburbs, but the suburban “feel” starts rather abruptly past the downtown blocks. However, Calgary (the city) disappoints, at least from whatever ill-informed expectations I had. It closes up early in the evening, and if you are staying downtown it’s rather bland and deserted at night. I doubt the massive skybridge network helps with fostering a good urban vibe, but it’s probably essential for their climate. I rode the CTA airport service (normal city bus, no rail), but it’s not that great as it serves as a full stop city route for most of the way (think old Metro route 174).

      I don’t think I was expecting Vancouver, but I also didn’t think it would be subdivision and mall blandness to the horizon. It’s by no means a neglected city, and there’s no real blight, but it’s just kind of meh. Their light rail was a high point, though.

      1. Interesting. If you had asked me about Calgary a year ago, I would thought it would be “meh”, or the Canadian equivalent of Dallas. There biggest social event is a rodeo — same name as their football team. But when I read about the city, I then realized it was much bigger than I thought, and much more diverse. My wife and I flew into Calgary just last fall, and I got to see it from the air. Holy smoke, does it sure sprawl. We really couldn’t figure out where the city ended and the suburbs began. We were visiting the Canadian Rockies, and so we didn’t have time to go into town. We could see the big skyscrapers, but just assumed there was some “old city” besides that. Now that I read some more (and see it in more detail with Google Maps) I can tell that there really isn’t. It was a tiny place until they discovered oil, and has grown rapidly over the years. That, combined with the plains, has made for a relatively boring city. I still may visit the city some day, but I’ll keep my expectations low.

      2. Calgary is nowhere near as sprawling as Dallas or Denver. It’s surprisingly compact. Look at the satellite imagery. Calgary’s built up area where 90% of the metro area population lives doesn’t spread more than 6 miles east-west or 10 miles north-south from downtown. This is roughly the same area as the city of Seattle plus the core Eastside.

        With expensive parking downtown, the lack of freeways downtown, and a transit system that reaches most of the population through buses feeding light rail, you can see why its ridership is high despite the very car-oriented land use. Half of the ridership at Calgary’s suburban light rail stations come from feeder buses. Half of commuters to downtown Calgary use public transit, the same level as downtown Seattle’s.

    4. I think why C Train is successful is as others have said strong land use policies of limited parking downtown, a strong concentration of people who work downtown in about a 1 to 2 square mile radius. The citizens and the surrounding area of Calgary have also been strongly against large highway building projects over the decades, which is a common thread among Canadian cities outside of Toronto. It’s also been built with expansion in mind, with platforms outside of downtown core being able to expand to 4 cars in the future if needed. And the Calgary has also planned for a downtown subway back when they were still in the planning stages of the initial line if it gets to the point of where the downtown surface station are no longer feasible to keep.

  4. How the Koch brothers are killing public transit projects across the country ($)

    Their arguments run the whole gambut: you don’t want high taxes, transit is obsolete now that Uber-like services exist and driverless cars are just around the corner, public transit goes against American liberties and values, people who have the freedom to choose don’t choose transit, trains bring crime (“Teenagers swarm onto San Francisco BART trains to rob passengers”), transit causes gentrification [never mind that that contradicts the crime assertion]. “Why would anybody ride transit when they can get a ride at their door within a minute that will drop them off at the door where they want to go?”

    The article raises some counterarguments: transit is more environmentally-friendly, states and counties automatically budget for roads while transit projects require a public vote which is a structural bias against transit, etc. I didn’t see an equity argument (some people can’t drive, can’t afford a car, or a car would squeeze their budget) but it may be in there.

    The strategy targets both rail and bus projects. Nashville was about to approve a package of light rail lines, bus lines, and a shared rail-bus tunnel, but then the activists swooped in and said “Do you want to have the highest sales tax in the country?” and it lost by a landslide. I don’t know how good the rail network was, whether it was mostly targeted distant commuters or also served all-day inner-city neighborhoods, but it did mention gentrification.

    Unfortunately there’s a grain of truth running through the rhetoric: when city after city propose a substandard network that focuses on long-distance commuters and imaginary riders, or encumber it with shared traffic lanes and stoplights that slow it way down, then it can’t be very effective and the value/cost ratio suffers. This has happened again and again with Link’s Everett and Issaquah lines but no 45th line or Central District line, Seattle and Portland’s streetcars, Denver’s light rail lines that fly to the suburbs that don’t use transit much or off-peak and deny rapid transit to inner-city areas, etc. On the other hand, the Kochs say all transit projects do that — both rail and bus — and that’s not true. Some projects are good, and some projects are at least partly good. And it’s unclear that the voters in these smaller-city projects even know about the projects in other cities or what their actual advantages and disadvantages are. So I’m not sure you can even say the Kochs are exaggerating real problems: they’re mostly inventing made-up problems, and the slight resemblances to real problems in other cities is mostly coincidental.

    Still, it’s interesting to hear all the anti-transit argument in one place.

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