Future Transit

We all know the reasons for action: Cities clogged by chronic traffic congestion; airborne pollutants which harm the health of millions; greenhouse gas exhaust which promotes ominous climate change. The need to develop new forms of mass transit to help transform our car-crazy world is clear. What’s not so clear is what form such action should take. Europe and Japan have made significant strides developing high speed rail systems. But to date not much has been done in the United States to bring mass transit into the 21st century. With the advent of the Obama administration, however, there is fresh cause to hope that long overdue action is coming. Clearly many have been nursing forward looking visions of what we might do, as this Comparison Matrix of Ready and Emerging Innovative Transportation Technologies developed at the University of Washington shows.

America’s transportation future should be based on phasing out internal combustion engines in favor of all electric cars, a subject I’ll deal with in greater length elsewhere. Going electric will make cars lighter in general, making passengers more vulnerable to collisions with heavy vehicles. For the sake of passenger safety, as well as overall energy efficiency, we should move most long haul trucking off our highways and back to trains. Accomplishing this goal should be the focus in updating our existing railroad system, not moving people around at high speeds. We need to update existing trains as a freight distribution system which will relieve highways of much of heavy freight they now carry. Doing so will not only make travel safer for passenger traffic, it will save energy and lower stress on our roadways.

Adopting the European approach to high speed trains would be a mistake for the United States. The expense required to install ground based high speed train service for a country as large as the US will be astronomical. People here also need to go faster than Europeans simply because the US is a much bigger place. But as the speed of ground based traffic rises, the potential for mayhem, mischief, and disaster rises with it. Moving people around on a national basis at speeds appropriate to the size of the US should cause us to move high speed transit off the ground, if only to reduce potential disasters.

ATI’s (Airtrain Inc.) Advance Guideway System is an approach with significant advantages over most high speed rail schemes. ATI’s current design uses a vehicle which carries 114 people hung from an overhead guide rail. Two modes of propulsions are used. At lower speeds drive wheels grasp the guide rail to push the vehicle along quietly. At higher speeds ducted thrust fans take over. Vehicles are reversible, so there is no need for two tracks. They can also be linked in groups to form multi car trains. Because the guide way is suspended from mounts, vehicles don’t interfere with local ground traffic and can use existing rights of ways. The system is also capable of climbing 15% grades, eliminating the need to tunnel through mountains. Both propulsion methods use electricity supplied by the guide rail. So no fossil fuel or combustion is involved.

The key to ATI’s system is dual propulsion. This is a system which acts as a subway or light commuter rail in town, and a like a propeller airplane when going cross country. Like airplanes, ATI’s vehicles pitch and roll when going around curves. The initial system is rated to operate at 150 miles per hour. But the company is already working on a 250 mph system, and is committed to providing 300. Since propeller airplanes can operate efficiently up to 350 mph, further headroom may be possible in the years ahead. These are speeds we are unlikely to see from ground based trains, and at which it would be inadvisable to operate ground traffic, even if it were possible.

A national network based on ATI’s system would be cheaper and faster to build than high speed ground trains. With enough time and development a grid built on this technology could displace national jet flights for all but the longest routes and most demanding travelers. Eventually express trains of this type could go coast to coast in ten hours. You would be able to take a sleeper car in New York, and wake up in Los Angeles. Advanced Guideway routes would also serve as superior form of urban commuter rail, allowing workers who live much greater distances from downtown retain the ability to commute into the city each day.

Of course one reason Why People Don’t Use Mass Transit services is the need to get around a distant town once they arrive. If someone feels they’ll need a car once they arrive in a city, they might as well just drive there to start with! This brings us to the other end of the national grid scale: the need locals and visitors alike have to simply get around town. Many schemes are being floated to solve this problem, but most will required extensive and expensive changes in how cities work. Rather than futuristic notions of fleets of small ownerless vehicles, or cars that can ride on rail lines, we might be better served by resurrecting an old Jazz Age phenomena called the Jitney, or Share Taxi.

IGT Taxibus is a British firm which presents a compelling scheme for what might be called Jitney service for the 21st century. The IGT system is composed of four elements: a fleet of minibuses to move people around, cell phone networks to order rides and coordinate payments, GPS to guide travel routes, and computer networking to coordinate fleets with maximum efficiency. Taxibuses provide door to door service, and IGT claims an average wait-time of only three minutes between ordering a ride, and being picked up. Fares would be automatically handled on cell phones, eliminating the token taking and exact change problems typical of city buses. IGT claims that Taxibus travel times will be much closer to a car or taxi than a city bus, especially as a Taxibus delivers riders directly to their destinations without the need to park a car on arrival.

IGT’s analysis suggests that the biggest benefit will be the elimination of six cars from city streets for every working Taxibus. For the scheme to work properly large fleets of Taxibuses are necessary to provide the quick response times IGT projects. But if IGT’s analysis is even close to being right, the benefit of deploying a large fleet of Taxibuses in big cities would be immense. A huge number of cars would be taken off the roads, resulting not only in big energy savings, but significant reductions in urban congestion and exhaust emissions. Furthermore, any city served by a large Taxibus fleet would give travelers added reason to ride high speed transit to town, rather than driving a car there. If you know cheap Taxibuses are available to ferry you door to door around town on short notice, there will be little reason to drive your car into the city to start with.

The combined strategies embodied by ATI’s Advanced Guideway System and IGT’s Taxibus can form a rich synergy capable of putting a major dent in America’s overwhelming traffic load. Who will want to drive a car 1000 miles when it’s possible to hop an Air train that moves at 300 miles per hour? Why would you need to drive your car to a distant city swarming with Taxibuses ready to provide quick door-to-door service? Yes, it will doubtless cost a great deal to create an Advanced Guideway network that covers the entire country, but not nearly as much, and to much better effect, than a ground based high speed rail system.

More importantly, it will cost us even more in the long run to do nothing. America needs to look up and embrace its future. It can do so by bringing the equivalent of flight down to the people. On the other hand, we need a way to unsnarl our complicated cities which won’t require the immense cost of retrofitting them with futuristic urban schemes. The indignity and inefficiency of city buses has soured most Americans on the prospect of mass transit. Taxibus fleets deployed in large numbers could remedy this, and in the process take huge numbers of cars off the roads where it matters most: from the heart of downtown.

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 01.26.09)

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