The next pod revolution

Personal rapid transit is landing at Heathrow next year. If it flies, cities will never be the same.

By Chris Morrison, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Tomorrow's public transit could look very different from today's if Martin Lowson's $20 million project at Heathrow Airport in London is a hit. Starting in 2008, Lowson's company, Advanced Transport Systems, will be whisking passengers between Heathrow's new Terminal 5 and a parking lot a mile away in tiny driverless vehicles that run on an elevated concrete track.

Unlike buses or trains, Lowson's "pods" are private -- about the size of a taxi, fitting as many as four adults -- and arrive on demand, within five minutes after passengers press a call button.

The concept behind Lowson's system, called "personal rapid transit," is not new. PRT dates back to the Nixon administration, and it's probably the best transit system you've never seen.

The construction cost is minimal: The outlay for the Heathrow project should be no more than $16 million per mile of track, compared with an average of $40 million per mile for light rail in most cities. PRT pods use half the energy of other forms of transportation and could eventually be solar-powered. The computer-guided pods deliver you directly to your destination -- the stops, ideally placed every half-mile, are detours from the main line.

So why aren't cities already filled with PRT tracks and pods? "The real problem was political, not technical," recalls John Edward Anderson, a former professor at Boston University who has worked on PRT for almost 40 years. Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle killed PRT projects, fearing opposition from transit drivers and the embarrassment of failing with an untested system. Quips Lowson, "We have a long line of cities that are really enthusiastic about being second."

Now that Lowson, a University of Bristol professor, has created a company that is putting PRT into effect, plenty of others are taking notice. South Korean steel giant Posco has poured money into a more complex project in Sweden, run by a subsidiary called Vectus, which has already constructed a test track and is seeking approval from the Swedish Rail Agency by the end of this year.

PRT "could really change the face of small-network transportation by 2020," says Steve Raney, executive director of Palo Alto-based nonprofit advocacy group Cities21.

In the United States, at least five municipalities are taking a second look at PRT. Santa Cruz, Calif., is even considering cutting VC firms and other investors in on the action, letting them bid on Santa Cruz's proposed PRT project in exchange for a piece of the fare revenue.

"The surprising thing about PRT," says Santa Cruz city councilman Ed Porter, "is that it can provide a return on investment after the first 10 years."

ESTIMATED ARRIVAL: 2020

PRETTY RELIABLE TRANSPORT

PRT offers a highly efficient system of personal pods on one track.

1. User arrives at a station, summoning a pod that arrives from a nearby storage area within five minutes.

2. The computer-controlled pods run close together, at an average of 20 mph, with no stops.

3. When the pod gets to its destination station, the track switches to let it off the main line. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.