The Twin Cities is hosting the Rail-Volution conference this week. As I watched the Rail-Volution attendees gathered in the refurbished Union Depot last night, I thought what a long way we’ve come from the dark days ten years ago when nearly every transportation meeting I attended included at least one proponent of Personal Rapid Transit, an iteration of a phenomenon some transit professionals have dubbed “gadgetbahn”.
Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) was loosely defined at the time as a network of pod-like vehicles on an elevated monorail-like structure with many off-line stations. In theory, PRT was supposed to combine the advantages of the private automobile with the efficiency of fixed guideway transit. After fifty-odd years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on PRT research, there are no true PRT systems in operation anywhere in the world. There are small demonstration projects labeled as PRT but should be more accurately described as APM’s (automated people movers).
PRT had no support from traditional grassroots Twin Cities transit advocacy groups which had resolutions opposing the public funding of PRT. While many PRT advocates claimed PRT was a futuristic, 21st Century concept, in fact it was a crusty relic from the last century. Personal Rapid Transit began as a concept in the 1950’s and ’60’s and found favor among urban planners at the Federal Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) who believed that mass transit could only compete with the private automobile by becoming more car-like. Millions of dollars were poured into PRT research projects. One of these ancient PRT projects was called Uniflo.
From a website history (no direct link) of Rosemount Inc., a Minnesota company:
“Uniflo was a computer controlled, air pressure levitated and propelled personal rapid transit (PRT) system. A Honeywell researcher, who had worked on and then purchased the rights for the project, interested Frank Werner in pursuing its development. Rosemount had hoped to fund the project with public financing or equity participation by another firm, but even with renewed federal interest in public transportation Rosemount had trouble funding Uniflo. A joint effort with Northrup Corp. to win a Department of Transportation (DOT) contract for a demonstration mass transit system at Dulles International Airport failed. The DOT passed over the Uniflo project for more conventional mass transit systems. Uniflo later received two other federal research grants but made no sales. The project, which was abandoned in 1973, cost Rosemount about $1 million.”
Here’s what Uniflo PRT was supposed to look like – (click on the picture to make it bigger)
This was the pitch for Uniflo:
“A personal rapid transit system has been developed, capable of providing urban areas with public transportation service that is competitive with the automobile in speed, availability, accessibility, and comfort. The system contributes no pollution in terms of air, noise, or vibration; it is relatively small in size; and it can be installed elevated, on grade, or below grade. These qualities make it an acceptable addition to a community. Because this personal rapid transit system is highly automated, a significant reduction in the amount of labor required to provide transportation service is anticipated. This could mean that it would again be possible to make money moving people.”
Rosemount pulled the plug on Uniflo after spending a reported million dollars in research.
In 1971 Minnesota Legislature appropriated $50,000 for another PRT proposal. PRT promoters from the Citizens League testified against a Metropolitan Transit Commission proposal to build rail lines as the backbone of a comprehensive transit network. The PRT study, published in 1973 recommended public funding of a project that would demonstrate the feasibility of PRT. The legislature did not fund the PRT project, but the diversion created by the PRT promoters helped to block the MTC proposal and Minnesota had to wait nearly twenty years to get it’s first light rail line.
PRT also played a role in delaying plans for rail transit in other cities. Denver citizens voted for a one-half cent sales tax in 1973. A Congressional report explains what happened next:
“UMTA began backing away from its early enthusiasm for the Denver PRT proposal in 1974. Embarrassing cost overruns in the demonstration project in Morgantown, W. Va. had cast doubt on the financial and technical feasibility of a PRT system similar to the one proposed in Denver. In addition, the Airtrans System at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport-like Morgantown’s PRT, a technological predecessor of the proposed Denver system-was not performing up to specifications.”
The so-called PRT project at West Virginia University in Morgantown was estimated to cost $14 million and ended up costing $126 million (1979 dollars). At it’s debut, the Morgantown PRT malfunctioned with President Nixon’s daughter Tricia on board. The Morgantown PRT has been plagued by glitches and breakdowns ever since.
Other PRT-style, automated transit experiments ran into the brick wall of reality; CVS (Japan), Cabinentaxi (Germany), Aramis (France), Cabtrack (England) Ford Motor Company’s ACT (Dearborn) all failed to meet expectations and were abandoned after wasting considerable funding that could have been invested in reality-based, conventional transit modes.
In the 1990s, Professor J. Edward Anderson, convinced the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) of Illinois to fund a PRT project for an industrial park in Rosemount, Illinois. Raytheon agreed to build it. The project was discontinued due to cost overruns and technical problems. Total losses in public and private investment in the Raytheon PRT project were estimated at $67 million.
Undeterred by this massive failure, J. Edward Anderson’s PRT company Taxi 2000 tried to get city after city to fund a PRT testing facility. In Cincinnati, promoters of PRT managed to convince U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning to release $500,000 in federal money for a monorail project. A PRT project called Skyloop was very likely the intended beneficiary. Skyloop never happened. Skyloop was rejected by a regional planning committee after engineers found the PRT concept to be an unsafe, infeasible eyesore. Downtown Cincinnati business owners objected to the removal of potential customers from the street level. Cincinnati is getting a streetcar instead.
In the 1980’s, Minnesotans took another look at rail transit. PRT enthusiasts again opposed LRT, but this time with a more belligerent tone. A PRT enthusiast disrupted an art seminar my wife and I were conducting, yelling that public officials conspired to suppress PRT and threw Taxi 2000 brochures on the table. Another transit advocate told me of similar meetings disrupted by PRT enthusiasts.
In 2004, bills and amendments were introduced at the Minnesota Legislature that granted bonding, regulatory and tax advantages to develop a PRT industry in Minnesota. Not one of these bills survived the legislative process, but the PRT bills provided a platform for anti-transit legislators to denounce conventional transit as too expensive, inefficient or old-fashioned. Stooping to fear tactics, PRT promoters claimed LRT riders would be “forced to ride with strangers”. The $4 million PRT bonding bill was passed by the House only to disappear in the conference committee. Things went quickly downhill for PRT promoters after that.
Late in 2005, a lawsuit involving Professor Anderson and the Taxi 2000 Corporation seemed to have derailed chances of public funding of PRT however, a far more important factor in the demise of PRT in Minnesota was the phenomenal success of the Hiawatha Light Rail Line, renamed the Blue Line which has exceeded ridership projections. This year, the Green Line between Saint Paul and Minneapolis was added the Green Line which has already exceeded expectations. Light rail’s success in attracting auto drivers has disproved the notion that transit must be car-like.
A group calling itself Citizens for Personal Rapid Transit (CPRT) keeps the PRT flame alive in Minnesota, According to this PRT website, there are several PRT “niche systems” proposed for Minnesota. A 2012 article in the Fridley Patch asked whether Taxi 2000 could be described as “moribund”. The last attempt to revive interest in PRT was a bill by Minnesota State Senator Torrey Westrom. Another Minnesota PRT company Jpods claims it is going to build a PRT system in Secaucus, New Jersey.
Nowadays, the citizens of Minnesota seem to understand that the future of transportation in Minnesota is unlikely to resemble the futuristic, Jetsons-style fantasies of yesteryear. The very real challenge of providing transportation choices to Minnesotans requires public officials and citizens alike to make decisions that are based on reality, not science fiction.
Note: Much of this article comes from a 2008 article I wrote titled “A Brief History of Personal Rapid Transit”. Needless to say, not much has changed since then. Below is a photo I took years ago of a model of Skyloop that was on display at the Crystal Court of the former IDS building in Minneapolis: