Palletized Cars Can Help Us Move Forward


Richard Arthur, President, CyberTrans New York LLC

I grew up on Long Island.

By that statement I want to communicate to all that I know a thing or two about traffic congestion. My family still lives there and I return for occasional weekends and holidays. There’s an actual physiological change that comes over me as I cross the White Stone or Throgs Neck Bridge and enter the Cross Island Parkway. It’s a knowledge that at any moment things can just stop. For no reason at all. At any time of the day or night. It’s a feeling of panic or fear or anger or desperation that my four hour, 225 mile trip from Albany can be ruined by the last fifteen miles.

I don’t like traffic.

I have devoted much of my life to avoiding, solving, alleviating, and developing alternatives to traffic congestion including stints at the New York City Transit Authority, the New York State Department of Transportation and now with CyberTran.

I find the dual mode concept to be intellectually quite attractive. If we accept as a given two key facts: that automated fixed guideway transit is inherently superior to freeway congestion but that it is never going to provide everyone with door to door access to their split level ranch in the woods, then dual mode systems such have been presented on this site have some inherent benefits that are hard to beat.

In this writing I would like to raise some caution flags and then weigh in with my support for the idea of palletized car ferries.

Despite all the logic and rhetoric, I still haven’t seen a convincing rebuttal to the John Hopkins critique that: "Sorry boys, it just ain’t gonna happen like that." I find the Hopkins critique to be fully supported by my experience in trying to raise money for CyberTran. The grand plan is not going to leap into reality regardless of how wonderful it is because this country doesn’t work like that any more. Like it or not, marketing people run the country, not engineers.

So we’re going to have to sell this product to a large number of different constituencies. For example, last fall I had the opportunity to present the CyberTran concept to a bunch of real estate developers in Westchester County, just north of New York City. They loved it. Why? Because their ability to attract premium tenants was being degraded by traffic congestion. However, that was not enough to get them to be ready to make a financial commitment to CyberTran or any fixed guideway solution.

First, they had to see exactly how they were going to profit. And the way that they were going to make the big bucks was not simply in holding their own but by adding more space to rent. The mechanism for doing this would be a change in the zoning regulations which would permit them to build more floor space and provide fewer parking spaces in exchange for contributing to or paying for a CyberTran station on their property. Their excitement about CyberTran was based on their view of CyberTran has a vehicle for moving a low value land use, parking, from the expensive property that they owned to less expensive property far away. This reasoning does not support dual mode as a primary use of the guideway.

As I said in my Aspen talk, the initial applications of this technology (and by this technology I am referring to a broad category of technologies including PRT, GRT, dual mode, etc. ) will be in fairly crowded corridors characterized by relatively few high volume origin-destination pairs. In this context, dual mode applications may not be the most effective or cost effective solutions.

I also have some concern regarding the efficiency of building guideways for dualmode vehicles. It seems to me to be a somewhat complex, inefficient use of guideway space, space that could be more productively used by multi-passenger vehicles.

There is another factor to consider: Initial financing. Francis Reynolds asks us to "Get out of the subsidized-transit-system mindset." I heartily agree. We should all get out of the "subsidized-transit-system" mindset. But the reality is that there is no private sector source of risk capital in the quantities required to adequately develop, test, demonstrate and prove these technologies. The risk/reward ratios are simply not attractive enough to generate meaningful amounts of private capital. There are many reasons for this but the most compelling one is that transportation system development is viewed as a public sector responsibility. There has been no major transportation system development in this country that has not been fueled largely by the government - that includes automobile travel, aviation, and railroads. All were nurtured by public sector activity whether it was in the construction of roads and highways, the offering of land grants for railroads or the underwriting of advanced aviation research by the military. I have not come across any meaningful arguments to convince me that similar patterns will not apply in the development of the "fourth way".

Also, let’s not forget that virtually all of the technologies presented in these electronic pages require the use of public rights-of-way. As unpleasant as it may seem, this means that the final arbiter in the development of these technologies is going to be those highway agencies which call themselves Departments of Transportation.

Francis Reynolds calls forth for Heaven to help us. He is correct. It will take something awfully close to divine intervention to convince the servants of the highway industry to buy into our solutions. Given the inherently risk adverse nature of the careerists who people these agencies, it behooves us to think incrementally.

For example, I think that I am making some progress with the New York State Department of Transportation. But I am doing so by arguing that there is NO innovation in the solution that I am proposing which is a slow speed, steel wheel, steel rail shuttle system linking two stations. In fact, if a CyberTran system gets built in the proposed corridor, it will be for one reason only: that it will improve the likelihood that a hotel will be built in the district of the Senate Majority Leader. As my lobbyist, the former speaker of the State Assembly explained to me. "Eliminating traffic congestion, cleaning the air, reducing out dependence on imported fossil fuels, eh, who cares. Making the Majority Leader look good by getting a hotel built in his district? Now that I can sell."

Now I want to be clear here that the Senate Majority Leader, Joe Bruno, is a very smart fellow. He knows what he is doing in proposing a CyberTran application. He understands the risks and the implications of going with an "unproven" technology. He also realizes that there may be some major benefits for the state and the citizenry down the road. But he needs to explain it to his colleagues and constituents not all of whom share his vision and concern for the environment. So disguising the project as an economic development project just makes good political sense. At the same time, if I had been trying to sell some sort of esoteric, high tech gizmo, I would never have even gotten into his office to make my pitch.

One of the most important presentations in the Aspen Conference was by Ken Osler of the Roaring Fork Transit Authority. He told the story of integrating a few natural gas buses into the fleet of buses that he manages. He reported that hundreds of hours were spent with each of the major stakeholders in the process including the drivers, the mechanics, the management, the board, the riders, the businesses served by the routes, and the general public. This for a simple change of fuel! But the simple change of fuel wasn’t so simple. It actually had a real or perceived impact on each of these groups. And each group had to see that the proposed change would provide sufficient benefits to justify the perceived risk whether that risk was seen as requiring a change of skills for the mechanics, less money available for pay raises for the drivers, high taxes for the citizenry or reduced service for the riders and businesses because the natural gas buses were more expensive than diesel fuel buses.

And here we are merely trying to change all of society.

Now what about palletized car ferries?

Let’s grant that they are more expensive and less elegant than pure dual mode. Let’s grant that they have some inherently cludgy aspects. However let’s also consider the appeal to the motorist.

As we are all painfully aware, motorists refuse to pay the full costs of their driving and no politician has ever lost a race by excessively pandering to motorists and the automobile lobby. Even the most innocent, sensible practice such as congestion pricing is phenomenally difficult to implement. (By the way, this analysis is targeted towards the American market, Palle Jensen and Martin Lowsen may have an easier time of it in Europe where the concept of the covered wagon and the freedom to range over the wide open plains is not part of the national psyche.)

So if we take as a given that the market rules and that there is going to be no political leadership to create a new transportation system, how can we best attract the support of the market. I just can’t see how a pure dual mode system is going to emerge. Will consumers pay an extra thousand bucks for an automobile that will be able to travel on guideways that aren’t built yet? Not likely. Will politicians authorize funds for a guideway for which there is no market. Probably not.

However, consider the possibility that a guideway is built in a hyper congested corridor where speeds drop to below 30 MPH for 6 hours daily. Build the guideway primarily for a transit application and provide high speed (90 mph+) transit service and offer an expensive, premium palletized car ferry as an add-on to the existing transit service. As Francis Reynolds himself points out, the AMTRAK car ferry is the only AMTRAK service that actually makes money. Will someone who makes $200+ an hour pay $45 to trim 90 minutes off his daily commute? That’s a bet I’d be willing to make. Would several thousand car ferries generating $45 each daily help amortize a system whose primary function is as a commuter rail system? Yes. Could a market for dualmode cars be created if the price for dualmode guideway access was substantially reduced relative to car ferry access? Probably.

I see the car ferry as the $495 calculator of the automated transit industry. It will be a premium service targeted to the Neimen Marcus/BMW/Lexus crowd. It will generate cash. But more importantly it will create market excitement. It will provide an accessible demonstration of the value of automated fixed guideway transit. It will create a new "King of the Road". The fact that it is not the most elegant engineering solution will be irrelevant if it sells.

I am one of those who believes that this industry has the potential to be profitable. However, I also believe that at least initially, any fixed guideway system will have excess capacity. So I have no compunctions whatsoever about adding services, be they palletized car ferries, automated freight transport or whatever which might increase the utilization of the guideway and help defray capital costs. The key is pricing. And the key is providing a product for which there are hundreds of millions of potential customers, not just the select few who would (a) choose to ride a transit vehicle or (b) be ready, willing and able to purchase a dualmode vehicle on, what will be for an initial period at least, a speculative basis.

In summary, I find Kirston Henderson’s (see MegaRail) basic arguments to be compelling. The problems with palletized car ferries are not insurmountable whereas the political/financial/marketing problems of Reynolds’ visionary system seem overwhelming. But this doesn’t mean that the ultimate system may not resemble Reynolds’ vision more closely than Henderson’s. But in the near term, Henderson seems to be a better bet. In fact, I would contend that the possibility of HiLoMag being successful is greater if MegaRail succeeds than if MegaRail never gets off the ground. If initiatives like MegaRail or Autrans or CyberTran for that matter which focus on minimizing up front technology risks and costs can’t succeed in demonstrating the attractiveness of the concept of a "fourth" transportation network, then ultimate systems such as Reynolds’ will never make it past the societal barriers presented by Hopkins.

I will close with the assertion that I presented in Aspen, "Let a thousand flowers bloom!" No one on these pages has the wisdom, insight, or foresight to be so absolutely right that everyone else is going to automatically agree. What is going to happen is that a few of the more sensible configurations are going to be funded on a small scale and then the market is going to guide us towards the most cost-effective attractive solution. Then as rather modest innovations are demonstrated as being non-threatening, the public’s appetite for technological risk may expand and some of the more elegant solutions may be tested and adopted.


Last modified: May 27, 2001