Personal rapid transit option for urban transportation without use of fossil fuels gets seeming fillip

‘Perfect blend between privacy and autonomy’

They typically run on elevated guideway or rails

ITHACA: The thought of a driverless, computer-guided car transporting people where they want to go on demand is a futuristic notion to some.

To Jacob Roberts, podcars — or PRTs, for personal rapid transit — represent an important component in the here-and-now of transportation. “It’s time we design cities for the human, not for the automobile,” said Mr. Roberts, president of Connect Ithaca, a group of planning and building professionals, activists and students committed to making this upstate New York college town the first podcar community in the U.S.

“In the podcar... it creates the perfect blend between the privacy and autonomy of the automobile with the public transportation aspect and, of course, it uses clean energy,” he said.

With the oil crisis reaching a zenith and federal lawmakers ready to begin fashioning a new national transportation bill for 2010, Mr. Roberts and his colleagues think the future is now for podcars — electric, automated, lightweight vehicles that ride on their own network separate from other traffic.

Unlike mass transit systems, podcars carry two to 10 passengers, giving travellers the freedom and privacy of their own car while reducing fossil fuel use and traffic congestion and freeing up parking space.

At stations located every block or every 800 metres, depending on the need, a rider enters a destination on a computerised pad, and a car would take the person non-stop to the location. Stations would have slanted pull-in bays so that some cars could stop for passengers, while others could continue unimpeded on the main course.

“It works almost like an elevator, but horizontally,” said Mr. Roberts, adding podcar travel would be safer than automobile travel.

The podcar is not entirely new. A limited version with larger cars carrying up to 15 passengers was built in 1975 in Morgantown, West Virginia, and still transports West Virginia University students.

Next year, Heathrow Airport outside London will unveil a pilot podcar system to ferry air travellers on the ground. Companies in Sweden, Poland and South Korea are already operating full-scale test tracks to demonstrate the feasibility.

Designers are planning a podcar network for Masdar City, outside Abu Dhabi, which is being built as the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste city. — AP

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