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lunes, 27 de septiembre de 2010

A Pod Car of One's Own

About 15 years ago I asked my family why we didn't have personal vehicles that move on tracks around town instead of cars. Little did I know that there were other people actually making it happen. A new generation of pod cars is poised to take off down the tracks.

Pod cars are usually called personal rapid transit or PRT, and several systems have been around since the gas crisis of the 1970s. They're different from trams or elevated trains that have connected cars for passengers. Instead, PRT involves small automated pods that carry up to six passengers from point to point. Imagine something like a gondola moving horizontally on tracks.

The beauty of PRT is that you can choose your destination and your fellow passengers. Anyone who has been squashed into an armpit on the subway knows what I'm talking about. PRT cars are electric-powered, quiet, don't require drivers and use very little energy and land. So why aren't they everywhere?

Actually PRT systems do exist stateside in West Virginia, Florida, Texas and Micigan. But as's Curtis Johnson points out, these early versions were like the first IBM personal computers -- slow and clunky. The PRT in Morgantown, W.V., has become known for its long delays. New systems are more advanced.

London's Heathrow Airport is testing one built by ULTra PRT and the city of San Jose is conducting a PRT feasibility study, Jim Witkin writes on the New York Times Wheels blog. Heathrow's futuristic system includes 21 vehicles that run among three stations. A ride in either direction of the 1.2-mile guideway takes about six minutes, according to ULTra's site.

Even the slickest, most modern PRT systems face significant hurdles. The city of Winona, Minn., wanted to build one but their application for $25 million in federal funding to build a test facility was denied. Critics also worry that PRT will draw riders away from other forms of public transport, which already face budget strains. Plus, gaining the right of way for such a system is no easy task.

The bike, the bus, a carsharing service and rides from friends have made it possible for me to stay car-free, but a pod car system could make it even more tempting to ditch car ownership, if you only need one to get you down that last mile. That's the dream: a pod of one's own.

Photo: A PRT vehicle that's part of the new ULTra network being tested at London's Heathrow Airport. Credit: ULTra.

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