Really Light Rail

Date: 14 Nov 1999 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Really Light Rail

By David Morris

November 14, 1999

When I was on KTCA’s “Almanac” a few months ago with Elwyn Tinklenberg, the transportation commissioner held forth on the promise of light-rail transit (LRT). The cohost anticipated my response.

“Mr. Morris, you’re against rail and for buses, right?” She was surprised and confused when I declared my enthusiasm for rail, but for a rail system using technology of the 1990s, not the 1890s.

Her confusion was perfectly understandable. For 25 years the discussion about mass transit has been narrowly framed. That wasn’t always the case.

In the 1960s, as automobile use began outpacing the capacity for roads to expand, transportation planners explored a variety of alternatives. Two contrasting approaches emerged.

One was the conventional line haul system of buses and rail, in which stations are located on-line and all passengers must stop when one wants to get off. The other was a new concept, an automated area network, quickly dubbed personal rapid transit or PRT, in which stations were off-line and passengers could go directly to their desired destination.

A PRT system is usually elevated. Passengers enter a station off the main line, get on a vehicle and punch in their destination, and the vehicle moves out of the station into the flow of traffic.

The federal government was intrigued by the possibilities of PRT and financed a working model in Morgantown, W.Va. That system, opened in 1972 and still operating, does boast some PRT features, but its overall design looks and acts more like an elevated light-rail system, with large, 20-passenger trains and thus a very costly and visually intrusive support structure.

In the early 1970s, the Minnesota Legislature financed an evaluation of PRT. After looking only at the Morgantown system, the state decided it was too expensive. And for the next quarter of a century, PRT disappeared from the Minnesota transportation debate. Line haul, whether buses or rail, was and is deemed the only conceivable alternative to road expansion.

Research in PRT continued, with most of the progress occurring at the University of Minnesota Engineering Department under the direction of Prof. J. Edward Anderson. By the 1980s, Anderson and the university had received five patents for major improvements in PRT. The Anderson system’s striking feature is its small vehicles, about the size of a VW bug. Such vehicles allow for a lightweight, inexpensive and visually unobtrusive support structure.

Over the last 20 years, dramatic advances in electronics have made possible a control system far more sophisticated than Morgantown’s. That translates into much shorter distances between cars traveling at 30 to 40 miles per hour, which allows very high traffic volumes during peak hours. The breakthrough of Anderson’s system is that one can serve large numbers of passengers while allowing them the privacy of their own cars and direct transportation to their desired destination.

The small vehicle size and inexpensive support structures allows more stations to be added at a small cost, thereby eventually extending the PRT system to within a few blocks of all city residents. Rather than an elevated light-rail system, Anderson’s looks like an elevated narrow-gauge road system populated by small cars. Indeed, the very name of his company evokes a visual image of the concept – Taxi 2000.

While PRT in Minnesota was making great strides in engineering design, light-rail systems had captured the fancy of policymakers. More than a dozen have been built. For the most part, they are attractive, popular and well-used. But even LRT’s most optimistic advocates concede that they are expensive and do virtually nothing to alleviate congestion.

The proposed Hiawatha line, for example, at a cost of almost $600 million, may take 2,000 to 3,000 cars off the road by 2010. That is equal to the traffic on one highway lane in an hour and a quarter. Even when the system is fully built out, it might displace no more than a fraction of a percent of all automobile trips. And the cost for each trip could be $8 to $10.

A growing number of transportation planners _ realizing that light rail, while attractive, is not a realistic solution to the traffic problem _ are taking another look at PRT, and they like what they see. A series of recent in-depth analyses of PRT systems for the Swedish cities of Gothenburg, Stockholm and Umea came to two remarkable conclusions:

First, PRT could potentially displace over 20 percent of all automobile trips. Second, a PRT system potentially could operate at a profit! Which means it could be financed privately.

In this country, Cincinnati is seriously considering a PRT system for its downtown. Closer to home, Rochester’s Mayo Clinic is exploring a PRT system to ferry patients and doctors within its extensive medical complex.

Yet in Minnesota, Anderson and the area-network approach to transportation continue to be treated with indifference or worse. Four months after my appearance on “Almanac,” Anderson has yet to be given the opportunity even to present his case to either Commissioner Tinklenberg or Metropolitan Council Chairman Ted Mondale. Any reader who wants to explore the alternative personally can see a computer simulation online and get a direct and detailed answer to virtually any question at the company’s Web site:

After 20 years of trying, and with the lure of $250 million in federal matching money, it is understandable that Minnesota government officials are eager to do nothing that might delay their quest for a light-rail system. Yet it is unclear whether this needs to be an either-or situation. PRT may complement LRT, or vice versa.

In any case, the potential benefits of Minnesota’s investing in a PRT system are enormous, while the potential costs are modest. An LRT system, at best, offers no economic-development spinoffs. But imagine that we were to build the first commercial PRT system here, with its patents owned by the University of Minnesota and with a homegrown company supplying the control software and technical design advice. Could Minnesota become the world center of PRT design and manufacturing? Why not?

According to Anderson, a $5 million to $10 million investment would be sufficient to build a small operating system and prove the viability of PRT here in Minnesota. That is small change for transportation budgets. Indeed, last June, Tinklenberg added another line item in the Hiawatha budget – $31 million for “contingencies.” Wouldn’t the potential introduction of a less expensive, more attractive rail transportation system be considered a “contingency”?

This article originally appeared in the Star Tribune

David Morris
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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.