Project METRAN (Metropolitan Transportation): An Integrated, Evolutionary Transportation System for Urban Areas

This is a brief summary of a report prepared by a group of 39 M.I.T. senior students in 1966. It resulted from an interdepartmental project called Project METRAN (Metropolitan Transportation): An Integrated, Evolutionary Transportation System for Urban Areas. It was published as M.I.T Report No. 8, by the M.I.T. Press, in 1968. The course was titled Special Studies in Systems Engineering and was designed to provide the students with an experience in the analysis and design of a large-scale complex problem through the use of systems engineering concepts and techniques. The project was supervised by 10 faculty from 8 different disciplines and the students heard from 21 outside speakers representing a wide variety of interests and knowledge during the course. Some of the students are now quite prominent contributors to the transportation planning field.

What did they come up with? First, the system was designed to enhance travel by automobile by adding automatic control capabilities and a new power source. Second, a system of bus-only streets (BOS) was designed. Every third or fourth street would be reserved for 40-passenger BOS vehicles which would provide easy-entry multi-door rapid loading. Today, there is a renewed interest in Bus Rapid Transit systems that would utilize exclusive lanes or high-occupancy lanes in order to provide fast and direct service. The Federal Transit Administration is giving this idea high priority as it promises to be much more cost-effective that light rail transit projects.

Third, a Personalized Capsule (PERC) system was designed for highly dense core areas. Vehicles were to be light-weight, 2-person capsules, connectable into 4-person capsules, operating at grade with limited access or elevated. PERC would have a channel capacity of around 20,000 persons per hour at a 20 mph operating speed. PERC is similar in many ways to current PRT concepts, especially Skyweb Express, ULTraPRT and VectusPRT.

Fourth was an automated guideway designed so that it can be used by vehicles that also operate on ordinary city streets. The vehicles would be similar to conventional cars and buses, would take power from a pickup device on the guideway or use electric motors or fuel cells when off the guideway. Control would be handled by computer and electronic devices contained in the guideway and on-board the vehicle. This automated guideway would provide a capacity of around 12,000 vehicles per hour, operating at 60 mph with 10 foot headways. It would be 8-9 feet wide. The work being done in the U.S. on an Automated Highway System (AHS) concept is very similar to the ideas presented in this M.I.T. report. Such systems are currently referred to as "dualmode" systems. Many such systems are being developed today and lots of information about them is available on-line

The fifth component was called GENIE and would consist of a series of small 10-passenger vehicles for transit service in low-medium density suburban areas. They would be dualmode vehicles and would operate under manual control off the guideway and under system control when on the guideway. GENIE would be operated under a centrally-controlled, dynamic scheduling and routing scheme. Persons would simply phone for service and the system would send an appropriate vehicle to their location. Several systems with these characteristics are currently under development in various parts of the world. GENIE is quite similar to the MaxiRUF dualmode concept being worked on in Denmark. It's focus is on the automation of the dispatching function but it could be applied to dualmode vehicles as well as conventional vehicles.

An evolutionary path is described for each of the five subsystems and considerable thought has been give to integrating them so that the users would experience a nearly seamless transition from one to another in nearly all cases. Considerable attention is also given to the manner in which each subsystem could carry goods, addressing a very important problem in urban areas that is often given little priority.

Using the Boston region as a case study, networks were roughed out, ballpark cost estimates made, impacts (physical form, economic and people - both positive and negative) defined and discussed and phase-in sequences were prioritized. Visual studies of PERC in downtown Boston were performed, a technology matrix for evaluating the overall transportation system's effectiveness as created and a large-scale station for the dualmode automated guideway system was designed in some detail.

All this thinking occurred in 1966 (published by the M.I.T. Press in 1968) - long before the microcomputer became so capable and ubiquitous. As noted above, these same ideas are still being put forth today but there is too little attention being given to two key concepts - integration and evolution. However, there are two exceptions that come to mind. One is work of Palle Jensen of Denmark, inventor of the RUF dual-mode concept. Currently, RUF comes quite close to matching-up well with the overall METRAN concept and represents the kind of integrated, evolutionary system that could really make a significant dent in the dominance of the auto in our metropolitan areas in the future. Another is being  developed by Kirston Henderson of MegaRail Transportation and it is currently the most evolutionary and integrated system now under development. It also includes a cargo mode that was not included in the METRAN thinking.

Other concepts mentioned above match up well with one of the five suggested systems but they are not being examined, for the most part, in an evolutionary and integrated manner. Rather, each is proceeding with litte regard to how well or poorly it might "fit in" with existing systems or with other emerging systems.

Another person who has articulated well the critical importance of an integrated, evolutionary approach is Larry Stern whose article titled Advanced Transportation Economic Development appeared in the Journal of Advanced Transit, Vol. 28:1 (Spring, 1984), pp 17-28. It is well worth reading.

Inventors and other persons interested in finding solutions for today's urban transportation problems would do well to emulate the same kind of thinking that was done by these M.I.T., students some 43 years ago.

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Last modified: March 14, 2009