Monday, April 13, 2009

The PRT Beast

This is what a PRT system would look like in Santa Cruz, as proposed by Transportation Enthusiast, with PRT stations spaced .5 miles apart throughout the community. That's 50 stations at $100,000 apiece (according to a construction industry expert). Then there's guidelrails, the command and control facilities, the pod cars themselves. I'd say, at least $20,000,000 minimum to build the thing. That's not counting right of way acquisition on private land for a private development scheme. Then there's annual maintenance, personnel costs, liability insurance, licenses and fees.

This is all in addition to the existing Metro Transit system, which will have to exist side by side and compete with PRT.

All this is to be supported with an alleged 10 to 30% of commuters in a population less than 100,000. That's less than 10,000 riders to pay for this behemoth!

Nope, it doesn't "pencil out." If this were such as Stirling opportunity, it would be built already.

When does Buffalo start building its own PRT?


  1. A Transportation Enthusiast11:21 AM

    I would *LOVE* for Buffalo to built a PRT system. But, alas, Buffalo is a dead city with conservative values and no vision.

    I thought Santa Cruz would be more progressive and forward thinking, would not be so resistant to change, would welcome a technology that benefitted the environment. But maybe I was wrong. If the comments on this blog are any indication, Santa Cruz is perfectly happy with their cars and buses, despite what they do to the environment and city livability.

    But that's perfectly fine. It's your city, if you wish to cling to the car culture, it's your business. I am only here to dispel some myths and provide information.

    By the way, that PRT station grid you drew is quite nice. Maybe you should pursue that layout. :-)

    Using your numbers: 50 stations at $100k is $50M, which sounds like a lot until you realize that the government just handed GM more than 200 TIMES that amount to sustain their failed and environmentally-destructive business practices. And then there's the stimulus bill, which is supposed to be directed largely at transportation infrastructure. 80B would buy 1600 stations - how many cities would that cover?

    So instead of railing against a green technology like PRT, maybe you should rail against tax dollars being dumped into SUV-loving companies that put us in this mess. Wouldn't that be a better target for your outrage?

    Now, back to your station grid. Let's look at the downtown area of your grid, bound by the river to the east, Chestnut St. to the west, Mission St to the north and Laurel St to the south. Referring to your PRT station map, that area would contain about 4 stations total.

    If each station is 3000 square feet, that's 12,000 square feet of stations. The entire area is about 0.55mi x 0.4mi, or 6 MILLION square feet. So your map which purports to show the PRT "beast" would actually consume 0.2% of the space. That's right, one fifth of one percent of the land - and that assumes that the stations can't be located inside existing buildings or over existing parking lots, in which case their impact would be even less.

    Now, speaking of PARKING, let's examine the impact of parking lots in that same area. Here's a convenient map of downtown parking provided by your downtown association. How much of your downtown has been consumed by parking? Does it look like it's MORE than 0.2%? My guess is, yes.

    But I don't like to guess, so I'll do some finer grained estimates using Google earth (all numbers in sq. ft.):

    Soquel/Front Garage - 42,000
    Locust Garage - 38,000
    The Walnut Tree Parking Lot - 23,400
    The Cedar/Church Garage - 46,800
    The Cedar/Cathcart Parking Lot - 51,200
    The Calvary Church Parking Lot - 36,400
    The Civic Auditorium Parking Lot - 19,800
    The Front/Cathcart Parking Lot - 24,700
    The Pearl Alley Parking Lot - 18,000
    The Elm Street Parking Lot - 16,200
    River/Front Garage - 46,200
    The Front Street South Parking Lot - 5,200
    The South Pacific Avenue Parking Lot - 6,000
    The City Hall Parking Lot - 17,000
    The Central Branch Library Parking Lot - 6,700
    The Walnut Avenue Permit Parking Lot - 6,400
    Birch Lane between Pacific and Cedar Streets - 2,600
    The Upper Front Street Parking Lot - 15,000
    The Front/Laurel West Parking Lot - 7,900
    The Front/Laurel East Parking Lot - 11,000

    So, let's see, the total square footage devoted to public parking in downtown Santa Cruz is (adding the numbers...) 440,500 square feet.

    That's just the public lots. There were several lots I found on Google Earth that were not listed on that parking page. Notably, there is a huge lot between South River and Front Streets, just north of Soquel - that lot consumes another 100,000 sq. ft.

    Let's crunch some numbers:

    estimated downtown space devoted to parking: 500,000+ square feet
    total downtown area: 6,000,000 square feet
    percentage space devoted to parking: 8.3%
    estimated size of a PRT station: 3000 sq ft
    number of PRT stations that downtown Santa Cruz parking space could accomodate: 166

    Let's think about this: this blog entry is called "PRT Beast" and you back that claim up by putting *FOUR* stations downtown, implying that the city would be overrun by those 4 PRT stations. Meanwhile, downtown has 500k square feet of space devoted to parking - space which would accomodate 166 stations IN DOWNTOWN ALONE!

    Are you similarly railing against the "auto beast"? If PRT impact on the downtown would only be 1/166th the impact of cars on downtown, where are the other 166 posts on this blog complaining about the "car beast"?

    OK, let's do some more number crunching. A well conceived PRT system would remove at least 10% of cars from the road, even critics acknowledge that (see my evidence in a previous comment). If the downtown parking need were reduced by 10%, that's 50,000 square feet of space that would be freed up. So even using a conservative number of 10%, and accounting for the 12,000 sq.ft for the PRT stations, that's a net gain of 38,000 square feet.

    But that's just the lower bound. Some ridership studies have shown even greater mode split for PRT, up to 30% or more cars removed from the road. Let's say we even double the stations downtown to support this higher ridership: 24,000 square feet, and the need for parking is reduced by 30%, or 150,000 square feet. The "PRT beast" has now reclaimed 126,000 square feet of downtown space!

    What to do with all that reclaimed space? How about parks, or event pavillions, or apartments, or restaurants? You know, things that make a city *livable* and *walkable*.

    One more thing: with all that parking space downtown, the PRT stations could easily be located OVER the existing lots. That's dead space anyways, so nothing is lost. And we already know the lots are located near the major destinations, so this would provide PRT service to the exact areas that most require it.

    Now, after that long, painful analysis, tell me: what is the REAL beast? Perhaps you should stop bashing PRT and focus on the elephant in the room?

  2. Being progressive and forward thinking, we do not unquestioningly accept every development scheme that is tossed over the transom. We minutely examine them for appropriate application in our community. We also closely analyze the social effects of proposed development.

    Rejection of PRT does not, ipso facto, imply acceptance of the transportation status quo, that is private automobiles. I am against PRT and private automobiles as well. I support reorganizing our communities to to be more pedestrian and bicycling friendly.

    I do not accept the claim of PRT as a green technology. PRT is no more green than any other development. It uses energy in its construction, maintenance and use. Whether or not it uses less energy than present transportation systems remains to be seen.

    Claiming that it will be run by solar panels is an attempt to greenwash the project. Whether or not this is possible, solar panels would add enormously to the visual impact of a PRT development.

    The analysis of parking lot sizes in Santa Cruz is a red herring. This is what happens when we concentrate on data in the absence of knowledge.

    Data analysis is good, the basis for sound policy decisions. However, the data must be evaluated in company with knowledge about how these "parking lots" are used and where they are located.

    Furthermore, I do not accept the assumption that even a fully built out PRT system would significantly reduce private automobile use in Santa Cruz.

    Here's a bit of knowledge about Santa Cruz that doesn't appear on Google maps: Santa Cruz is a tourist destination. Those parking lots are filled to a large extent by people who drive over the hill in their private automobiles from the Bay Area and Silicon Valley to play in Santa Cruz. There's no public transportation twixt hither and yon, only Highway 17 winding through the mountains that separate us from 5 million people.

    Since there is little undeveloped land in Santa Cruz, we use these parking lots for other things, such as farmer's markets, fairs and other gatherings, another bit of information not appearing on the Google Map.

    Ridership studies are only worth the data input. Garbage in, garbage out. Adoption of public transit by motorists is subject to many factors other than a cold, rational analysis of cost benefit ratios. Perception of convenience is critically important. The most important factor seems to be the price of gasoline at the pump. Simply providing an alternative does not guarantee its acceptance.

    The real beast I'm discussing is PRT. Fantasies of happy commuters zipping about in pod cars are just that: fantasies. The cold reality is the total energy costs of manufacturing, building and maintaining a PRT system in the real world of human foibles, energy production, Peak Oil and global climate change.

  3. So I guess PRT is not for everyone after all, eh? Apparently not for those with "conservative" values and no vision.

    When you can sell PRT in Buffalo, the technology will have truly arrived.

  4. A Transportation Enthusiast9:24 AM

    You may "reject" PRT, you may claim that it is "no more green" than other modes, but the facts do NOT support you.

    PRT energy usage is known. Fully functioning prototypes have run for thousands of hours and the numbers are clear: energy usage one half to one quarter that of a car, transit bus or trolley (per passenger). This is FACT - I presented the supporting data and links in an earlier comment.

    Despite this, you still reject the concept as "no more green than any other development" - yet you stand idly by as parking garages spring up all around (with enough concrete in one garage to build an entire PRT network). In fact here you are *defending* parking lots as gathering areas! This is a pro-car position, no matter how you choose to "greenwash" it with talk of "reorganizing communities" for walkability even as you defend the utility of huge concrete parking lots as some sort of community asset.

    As for the solar panels, that's not greenwashing, that's just improving upon an already energy efficient system. This isn't a solar panel on top of a gas guzzling Humvee - THAT would be greenwashing. No, the panels would only augment the huge savings that PRT already provide. So a 75% savings in power requirements (vs cars and buses) becomes a 90% savings.

    And, by the way, the panels would be on top of the guideway, out of sight to the people on the street.

    And back to constuction energy: Have you SEEN how lightweight PRT designs are? Concrete-based systems use about as much concrete per mile as a sidewalk. Steel-based systems are similarly low profile - the steel from a single large commercial building would be sufficient to build a moderately sized PRT network.

    I am always amazed at the resistance to PRT from people who seem to profess the same goals as PRT. Sure, it's easy to understand objections from car-zealots; they'll never give up their SUV and they'll block any attempt to even diminish the car culture they love. But it really shocks me when objections come from environmentalists, progressives, bicyclists, transit advocates, and those who support walkable, livable cities. Those are the exact groups which should be supporting such a forward thinking effort like PRT which aims directly at the car culture. But alas, some of the strongest and most vicious opposition comes from these very groups.

    I sometimes think about what the car fanatics must think when they see transit advocates bashing each other over train vs bus or bus vs PRT or whatever - I imagine them chuckling at the ridiculous, petty disagreements that prevent any progress whatsoever in the building of transit, while they continue to pave over the entire planet...

  5. Green is an ambiguous term that has no meaning, much like "sustainable."


The proposal that a pod car uses less energy than a private automobile does not take into account the total energy cost of building the entire infrastructure that makes the pod car go. The infrastructure for private automobiles already exists, so building a new transportation infrastructure takes more energy, not less.


The fact that I oppose a new transportation infrastructure does not imply that "I stand idly by" with regard to private automobile transportation. In fact, if you had bothered to ask, I would have told you that I am active in support of transportation alternatives and in opposition to the private automobile. I am a member of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission Bicycle Committee. I testify regularly at local meetings in support of transportation alternatives. I am a tireless daily advocate for vehicular bicycling. I do not drive a car, I only bicycle and walk where ever I go in my community.


Providing another transportation infrastructure based on individual "cars" is continuing the car-think position of using energy and technology to move people between work, home, play and retail sources. A true alternative would be to redesign cities so that such energy and technology are not required for the residents to go about their daily lives. Such redevelopment increases the sustainability of the local community by reducing the need for scarce resources indefinitely into the future.

Solar panels on top of the guideway? Where does the pod car go? The only pictures I've seen of this proposition is solar panels on stalks above the guideway, out of the way of the pod car ( This is an increase in the visual impact of the guideway.

    Furthermore, no one has ever demonstrated that solar panels rigidly fixed to the guide way would provide significant energy toward the operation of the entire system. It would certainly increase the total energy and maintenance costs of the system.

Light weight of materials has nothing to do with the energy consumption necessary to build and maintain a PRT system. More is still more. Light weight materials must still be mined, transported, manufactured, transported, assembled, maintained and replaced when worn out. More is not less.


I do not profess the same goals as PRT. I do not propose to build another infrastructure to move people from work to home to shopping on a mechanized, energy consuming transportation technology. I propose to reduce the need for such energy consumption, not increase it.

    "Environmentalsts" are not a uniform bunch. Many bicyclists claim to be environmentalists while proposing to build bicycle development projects in undeveloped land at the expense of endangered species. Since "some of the strongest and most vicious opposition comes from these very groups," I'd suggest you take a close look at what we're saying. If PRT were such a world shaking transportation alternative as its proponents claim, wouldn't you think that intelligent, analytical, thoughtful environmentalists would be jumping on the PRT wagon the world over?


When you find all the traffic going against you, check to see if you're going the wrong way on a one-way street.

  6. A Transportation Enthusiast6:07 AM

    Hayduke, you talk about redesigning cities like it's a simple task. Even assuming that could be done (it would be a huge effort to restructure the topology of an entire city) how much construction energy would *that* take? I speak of putting up slim little guideways, you balk at the construction energy, then talk about reconstructing a whole city.

    By the way, if you look at Masdar, they ARE building a walkable city. Because there are no cars at the surface, buildings are closer together and constructed to minimize walking distance, and also to provide areas of shade to minimize AC use in the heat. The entire design is very compact without the expansive infrastructure of the automobile. Consider the 8% of your city downtown which has been devoted to concrete parking lots and garages - those lots decrease livable density and walkabilty.

    So maybe you should consider that PRT *could* (and SHOULD, IMO) be used to create *more* dense neighborhoods and cities by reducing the need for density-destroying automobile infrastructure. That's my particular vision, and I believe it's quite aligned with yours, except that I recognize the *need* for *some* form of automated transportation to eventually replace the automobile. I see PRT as the path to the city you and I both envision.

    One more thing: bicycles are not for everyone. The disabled, elderly, asthmatic, lazy, etc, still need something to move around. I mention "lazy" because that IS a huge factor. You can rebuild a city for walkability, but you can't force people to walk or bike around that city. In some ways, rebuilding the city is the easy part; changing people's attitudes is the difficult (impossible?) part. PRT can help with that human transition.

    So, think of PRT as long term mobility for those who will always need it (disabled, etc) and "training wheels" for the lazy car driver to transition from "drive everywhere" to "use transit and walk".

  7. Redesigning cities is easy and its happening right now, here in progressive Santa Cruz. It doesn't involve "reconstructing a whole city." It consists of removing the code and zoning restrictions on designing and building live-work arrangements, and providing tax incentives for buildings that reduce or eliminate automobile commutes for their inhabitants.

    We have several live-work developments occupied and functioning in Santa Cruz. It's an old concept, living above the store, made unfashionable by developers thriving on urban sprawl. It's time has returned.

    Those parking lots you decry are for the tourists who drive to Santa Cruz from over the hill. Talk to business people downtown whose livelihood depends on those tourists parking in the parking lots and see how they react to removing the parking lots! We locals use them for farmers markets, trade fairs and safe open spaces during earthquakes.

    PRT would not "create" more dense neighborhoods, even if that were desired by the people who live there. This is cart before the horse thinking. There isn't enough population density to support PRT, so build PRT to increase the population density!

    In fact, if PRT really would facilitate commuting from work to home to shopping, PRT would serve to increase sprawl and lower population density, just as did private automobiles. When looking to the future, it is helpful to learn from the lessons of the past.

    Ah, so now we have the "disabled" card, the same canard employed by bicyclists seeking to destroy critical habitat for endangered species for their segregated bike roads. If the "PRT for everyone" argument doesn't work, drag in the handicapped as an excuse.

    In progressive Santa Cruz, we already have transportation options for handicapped. It's called ParaCruz, part of the Metro transit system that picks up people at their door, on demand, and takes them where they want to go. Rather than design an entire transportation infrastructure to accommodate a few special riders, we provide them with their own unique system. This lowers the cost and increases the convenience of the Metro system for everyone else.

    The "Bike Road" crowd also plays the "training wheels" card, insisting that building a quarter mile of paved bike road through endangered species' critical habitat will somehow magically entice motorists out of their cars and onto bicycles. One does not change "lazy" thinking habits by offering a new glittering "lazy" transportation alternative. PRT is a continuation of "lazy" car-think, substituting expensive and energy consuming technology for self-reliance, healthy exercise and mutual aid.

    PRT is transportation candy, devoid of nutrition, full of empty calories, encouraging sloth and indolence among a mobile population. Peak Oil and climate change are a powerful incentives to change our thinking about how we move about in our communities.

    Let's do something truly revolutionary. Let's move forward to the past.

    On your feets!