Had Enough of Auto-Dominance Yet?

by J. Schneider

(This is an updated and revised version of an article originally published in Oregon Futures,
a Willamette University publication)

Studies have shown that, despite good intentions, recent investments in conventional public transit, such as light rail and bus services, are quite ineffective in dealing with current, let alone future, congestion, pollution and safety problems.  Seattle’s controversial light rail plan attests to the inefficiency of such measures.  It is now estimated to cost more than $150 million per mile, take approximately 10 years to construct and probably will not make a dent in future congestion.  A recent study from Harvard University has reviewed a dozen new light rail systems in the U.S. It concluded that none of them was successful, as none even came close to achieving the patronage they had promised.  In addition, because three-quarters of the customers were former bus riders, they caused many of the bus companies to go out of business.  In short, none of these expensive light-rail systems has had any measurable effect upon traffic congestion, pollution or safety.

This said, those who are unaware that a different and better urban transportation future is possible continue to view conventional light rail as the only way out.  Calls for greatly increased investments in “public transit” are popular with both environmentalists and politicians. While many agree that more money should be spent on alternatives to the auto, it is abundantly clear that investing more money in conventional light rail will not significantly reduce congestion and auto-dominance in the future.

Current forecasts indicate that the population of the Willamette Valley will increase by about 2 million between now and 2050. If current levels of auto ownership remain constant or increase during this 50-year period and road-building and maintenance do not keep pace with this growth, it is very likely that autos will overwhelm our cities long before 2050 arrives. Of course, if peak oil arrives and gasoline costs increase significantly, other futures are certainly more likely.

Is there truly no way out? Or, are there some little-known transit alternatives that might help us to achieve a more livable and less auto-dominated future?

Fortunately, such alternatives exist. A diverse group of people around the world are working diligently on a variety of solutions that could produce a better future, ones that would provide a reasonably high level of personal mobility without requiring us to suffer the negative consequences of auto-dominance. Let’s take a quick tour of a few of the leading contenders.

Some Alternatives to More and More Autos

Researchers and politicians around the world are presently investigating three major urban transportation concepts. One is called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), a second is called Group Rapid Transit (GRT), and the third is called Dualmode Transportation (DT). All differ from conventional rail transit in that they use small electric vehicles, provide frequent direct service, cost much less and provide auto-competitive personal mobility.

The PRT concept requires small automated vehicles that travel on elevated, exclusive guideways. A large number of stations would exist so that patrons could access the system with a short walk and then have a non-stop, stress-free and view-rich ride to the station nearest their desired destination. A PRT system would be available all of the time, would be electrically-powered and essentially pollution- and noise-free. The service would approximate that of a private auto in terms of travel time and surpass it in terms of safety, stress and adverse environmental impacts.

Group rapid transit (GRT) is a term that refers to a service very much like PRT, except that the vehicles, guideways and stations are all larger. Some have off-line stations, making non-stop service possible, but, on those systems which do not, vehicles must stop at each station. Stations would be fewer in number but service would be quite frequent. GRT systems are likely to be more expensive than PRT systems but may provide more capacity at a slightly slower average speed. 

Dualmode transportation differs from PRT and GRT in that its vehicles can travel on both the conventional street system, similar to an auto, and on an automated guideway under computer control. Clearly, such a system can provide door-to-door service, an attribute lacking in the PRT and GRT systems. Otherwise, the concepts are similar in most respects. Both need elevated guideways, but a dualmode system requires far fewer miles of guideway and far fewer stations than PRT or GRT. Travel on the automated part of the system would be hands-free, visually exciting and probably somewhat faster than comparable PRT and GRT networks.

Do not get too hopeful. One cannot expect any of these systems, if implemented, to replace the auto and leave the conventional roadway system empty and unused. However, depending on how intelligently they are deployed, they do offer a significant potential for reducing auto dependence without significantly reducing our cherished high levels of personal mobility. Their main advantage is that they are compatible with the very diffuse travel patterns that are characteristic of the 21st century American city, an advantage which conventional radial rail systems, useful mostly for downtown trips, simply do not have.

Moreover, these alternative systems would not require the huge costs and disruption that occur when cities tear up roads and tunnel under streets as does the construction of conventional rail systems. In fact, all of these systems would be much easier to fit  into existing urban areas, with minimal construction impact or disruption to business and living patterns.

Seven Examples of Emerging Innovative Transit Systems

(Only very brief descriptions are provided here. More details and numerous illustrations are available at the websites appearing at the end of this article.)

There are three Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems currently under development. One is called Skyweb Express, based in Minnesota. Development of a second, called Ultra Light Rail (ULTra), is underway in the U.K. A Texas company is developing a third, called MicroRail.

The Skyweb Express concept is very well developed and is now a leading contender for applications around the world. If all goes well, it will be the first PRT application in the U.S. and will solidify its status as a global leader in PRT technology. 

The University of Bristol, in the U.K., initially developed the ULTra concept, but a private spin-off company is now pursuing it. It is similar in its service attributes to Skyweb Express but features a larger vehicle and a different type of automated guideway. Its first application is likely to be at Heathrow International Airport in the U.K.

In its initial version, MicroRail will be different from Skyweb Express and ULTra. It would provide small vehicles that can be coupled and operated as a train, under manual control. It will also be able to leave the automated guideway and use conventional city streets, similar to a conventional tram. It has been designed so that it can be evolved into a fully automated PRT system in the future.

Austrans is a GRT technology now being developed in Australia. Its small, lightweight vehicles contain eight seats and use steel wheels on steel rails. It is particularly well-suited to serving travel needs within urban areas and can be easily fit into existing urban environments.

Another GRT system is called CyberTran. It is a passenger and light cargo transportation system that would employ large numbers of small (6 - 20 passengers), lightweight (10,000 lb. loaded), electrically powered, computer controlled vehicles operating on rails mounted on an elevated or ground-level exclusive guideway. It would travel at speeds ranging from tourist (20 - 40 mph) to urban (40 - 75 mph) to high speed (75 - 150 mph).

Companies in Denmark and Texas are presently developing the leading dualmode concepts. The Danish system is called RUF (rapid, urban, flexible), and it represents a blend of rail and roadway attributes. It features small, electric individual vehicles and a larger 10-passenger electric vehicle for group travel. Both vehicles can travel on the conventional roadway system and on a special RUF monorail under full computer control. It features door-to-door travel and is essentially environmentally benign.

MegaRail is currently the leading U.S. dualmode concept and is under development in Texas. It differs from RUF in substantial ways but would provide the same kind of service attributes. Prototype vehicles and guideways are now being built. Initially, it will be a manual system with a driver for each train of vehicles. But, it will be able to leave the guideway and travel on conventional streets as well. A heavy cargo version (CargoRail) is also under development for freight-only service. Prototypes are expected to be available for inspection in 2006.

Implementation Opportunities and Problems

To repeat an important and often misunderstood point, we cannot expect any of these systems to displace completely the greener and more efficient autos that automakers will be producing in the future. However, if they can be adequately developed, survive rigorous testing programs and become market-ready at a competitive price, they should find quite a large number of ready and willing public and private customers.  

Admittedly, there are both technical and non-technical challenges yet to overcome. Let’s review some of them briefly. Perhaps the greatest technical challenge that they all face is the development of a highly reliable software package to control a large number of vehicles operating in a fully automated mode. Such software packages have been designed and tested in limited ways, but none has yet been subjected to tests that involve large numbers of the public, some of whom behave in unexpected ways. Yet, large-scale PRT simulations have been conducted, offering evidence that one can expect such systems to perform effectively on large urban networks involving thousands of vehicles and hundreds of stations. Undoubtedly, small networks should be constructed first and tested with riders from the public to verify these promising computer-based simulation results. Dualmode transportation systems face similar problems and have yet to be tested as extensively as PRT and GRT systems using computer-based simulation models.

Another problem arises from the common reaction that these systems are not “mass transit” systems and therefore do not have the capacity needed to carry large numbers of people from place to place. However, study after study has shown that these systems do have the capacity needed to meet the requirements of the great majority of potential urban applications in the U.S. Still, most people simply do not believe such results because they do not understand that the capacity requirements in most urban and intraurban applications are far lower than they imagine. These skeptics also do not comprehend that the larger capacities conventional transit systems afford are simply not needed to serve the vast majority of the diverse travel movements we currently observe in our cities. 

One must measure the capacity of a PRT system, for example, by its ability to move a large number of people over a network between a large number of stations with only a minimal wait time at the station. One has to rely on a computer-based simulation model to make such a calculation because one cannot do it in one's head or by resorting to “common sense” notions. A recent large-scale PRT simulation of this type was conducted for the entire city of Gothenburg, Sweden, and it found no serious capacity problems in the citywide PRT network. 

An example of a non-technical problem that all elevated technologies have to face has to do with the visual intrusion of elevated guideways in various urban settings.  Developers have created many static illustrations and computer-generated animations of what these guideways would look like in various urban locations. Still, there is considerable uncertainty about how the public will react to the prospect of these structures existing in their communities. Reactions are likely to be highly variable and often quite unique to a particular location and set of community traditions and values. Swedish researchers, among others, have completed useful studies of various ways of mitigating the visual intrusion of elevated guideways. The main trade-off is between visual intrusion and the greatly improved safety these new technologies offer.

In the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) sections of the websites for each technology, one can examine other technical, non-technical and public policy issues concerning these technologies. Most of the FAQ's are quite extensive, as they have evolved from several years of vigorous web-based and personal discussions among advocates and their antagonists.

How Might Oregon's Willamette Valley Employ These Systems?

Since most of Oregon's population growth is expected to occur in the Willamette Valley, how might these technologies be used to help maintain high levels of personal mobility and land use objectives while reducing auto-dependence? Here are several application ideas.

Initially, PRT and GRT systems can be most helpful in providing circulator service in high density, badly congested activity centers and in overcoming barriers to movement such as freeways, rivers and other obstacles. MegaRail could connect population centers to more distant locations, such as a remote airport located between Portland and Seattle, or provide fast travel to various locations on the Oregon coast and other popular recreation sites. Austrans could be used to connect various locations in the suburban areas, serving intermediate all-day travel volumes. CyberTran would be an ideal replacement for Amtrak service in the Valley, providing much faster and more frequent service at a much lower cost.

Dualmode systems could offer fast, safe travel throughout the entire valley for a fraction of the cost of conventional rail and highway systems. Furthermore, it could do so with little or no negative impact on the environment. Planners would have to select station locations carefully in order to maintain land use goals rather then undermine them. Abandoned or little-used rail lines could provide the needed right-of-way. in a few cases..

What Can We Do Now?

How can interested residents of Oregon encourage the evolution of these and other transportation alternatives and help reduce the prospect of living with the continued dominance of the auto? One method is to request that the Legislature direct the Oregon Department of Transportation to continue conducting assessment studies of the most promising alternatives and to help educate people about them.

A more effective approach would be to encourage the state to fund an incubator facility that could assist various inventors with developing and testing their technologies. Another alternative is for Oregon to join with Washington or California to establish and fund such a facility. Such an incubator, called CalStart, already exists in California, but it is currently focused only on the development of cleaner and more efficient autos.

Concurrently, city planners must conduct studies to determine how various technologies might be integrated most effectively with the current highway, rail transit and land use systems in Oregon. Probable land use impacts would have to be carefully considered, as a careless application of any new transportation technology could encourage sprawl and have adverse effects on the maintenance of urban growth boundaries and other land use goals. In fact, the proper use of appropriate non-auto technologies could greatly assist in the achievement of land use goals and actually help maintain and preserve many of the environmental amenities Oregon’s residents value.

It will take some determined effort to find attractive and cost-effective ways to avoid building more highways and expensive conventional rail transit routes. Nevertheless, there are many attractive possibilities that one can consider to stimulate innovative thinking about the urban and intercity transportation problems of the future. If enough people become interested and active, perhaps Oregon could emerge as a national leader in encouraging alternate systems and could even foster some new local transportation industries in the process.

More details are available at the following websites:

PRT Technologies
Skyweb Express: www.skywebexpress.com
 ULTra: www.atsltd.co.uk
  MicroRail: www.megarail.com

GRT Technologies
Austrans: www.austrans.com
 CyberTrans: www.cybertran.com

Dualmode Technologies
RUF: www.ruf.dk
MegaRail: www.megarail.com

 Links to descriptions of more than 80 innovative transportation technologies from around the world can be found at:


Jerry Schneider is Professor Emeritus from the University of Washington in Seattle.  He is now residing in Corvallis, Oregon.
E-mail: jbsATpeakDOTorg

Last modified: November 24, 2005