Beyond BART

As I drove around the block for the fourth time, looking for a parking space near Oakland’s Jack London Square, the irony hit me: I had chosen my car to get to the headquarters of a company that hopes to revolutionize public transit. By the time I finally ditched my car and found the offices of CyberTran International, nestled in two adjacent storefronts along the brick-paved, pedestrian-only Water Street, I was eager to hear the company’s plan for how I might never need to drive again.

CyberTran International, founded in 1998, is one of a dozen or so companies around the world that hope to make mass transit so much better that it could tip the scales of public sentiment away from favoring personal cars. Each company has its own specific plans, but the basic idea is the same: “You go into a station, you push a button, a vehicle comes and picks you up and takes you to your destination,” explains Neil Sinclair, CyberTran’s CEO and chairman. “You can bypass stops. In an elevator you don’t go from the second floor to the tenth floor and stop at every floor; you zip from the second to the tenth floor. That’s what this does horizontally.”

The technology has almost as many names as it does implementations: personal rapid transit (PRT), podcars, group rapid transit, or automated direct transportation. CyberTran calls its variation UltraLight Rail Transit. Sitting in the company’s front window was a scale model: a sleek, bullet-shaped car, like a silver Airstreamtrailer with pointed ends and large windows, running on an elevated guideway.

CyberTran’s late founder, civil engineer John Dearian, first developed the system in the 1990s as a research and development project within Idaho National Laboratory. In 1998, he and Sinclair took the technology out of the lab to form CyberTran, building and testing a full-sized prototype on a track in Alameda. The car held twenty riders in cushy, charter-bus style seats, facing forward in rows. (Other companies have designs that include smaller cars, some holding as few as two riders, and vehicles that hang below an overhead track like a ski lift.)

In a full implementation of the CyberTran system, the automated, driverless electric cars would run on a large network of tracks. Instead of following a preset path, as a train does, onboard computers would decide the optimum route to take you straight to your destination. Stations would be set off the main track, allowing cars to zip past at full speed. “We’ve redesigned the whole idea of a rail-based passenger transportation system,” Sinclair emphasizes. “We’re talking about an integrated network,” one that could include high-speed regional connections along with local service.

Most importantly, the technology is clean. CyberTran calculates that its system would use around 90 percent less energy and create 98 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile traveled than automobiles (although those figures, of course, depend on how the rail gets its electric power).

Such a system has serious advantages over traditional forms of public transportation. Passengers would be freed from memorizing schedules, long waits at stations or bus stops, or figuring out transfers between routes. Trips could be 14 to 125 percent faster stop-to-stop than on conventional buses or rail, according to calculations in a report on personal rapid transit created for the New Jersey state legislature. Because the vehicles are small, the track infrastructure would take less space and be much less expensive to build than traditional rail, even if tracks were elevated along parts of their routes to avoid interfering with cars. (The New Jersey report estimates a cost of $30 million to $50 million per mile for such systems; by comparison, the BART extension from Fremont to Silicon Valley is projected to cost around $375 million
per mile.) More affordable, smaller tracks allow for more stations, especially because more stops don’t mean slower trips as they do for buses and trains that pause at every one.

Put those factors together, and you begin to see the biggest advantage of systems like CyberTran’s: They might actually lure people out of their cars. “We’ve got an auto-dependent civilization,” Sinclair says, ruefully. “It’s killing us, and it’s killing the planet.” He’s right; transportation is responsible for 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States (in California, it’s 38 percent), and 70 percent of American oil consumption. While developing alternative fuels and increasing fuel efficiency play an important role in reducing those numbers, helping people avoid driving altogether is key.

“I can’t tell you how much I want this to happen,” says Peter Calthorpe, the San Francisco-based planning guru and New Urbanist pioneer. “In California, transportation is the 800-pound gorilla. Nothing comes close in terms of energy and carbon footprint.” The state’s successes in other areas (especially in boosting home energy efficiency) leave transportation as the biggest area of energy use that can be cut back. Even though public transit ridership hit an all-time high in 2008, personal vehicles still account for over eighty percent of daily trips nationwide. To make a dent in those numbers, public transportation must become an alluring alternative. “You can’t solve [climate change] without attacking vehicle-miles traveled,” says Calthorpe. “The idea that we’re going to move into the 21st century with 19th century transit technology is absurd to me.”

Though it seems futuristic, the basic ideas behind automated direct transit have been around for decades; the struggle has been in putting the theories into practice. In the mid-’70s, the Nixon administration funded research into the concept. The resulting investment produced a direct-transit line in Morgantown, West Virginia, that connects the three campuses of West Virginia University. The system has run for over thirty years, but cost overruns and construction delays tarnished the technology’s reputation
for decades. No full-scale system has been completed since, though a project is underway at Heathrow Airport in London, and several cities in Sweden are considering systems. Other proposed
projects have ended up in the dustbin because of concerns about costs or the readiness of the technology.

“There’s inertia in the transportation system,” points out Elizabeth Deakin, director of the University of California Transportation Research Center and professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. “Lots of people don’t like big old clunky buses, but we’ve got them, we know how to operate them, we know how they work. It makes it hard to change even if change might be better.”

Despite the obstacles, several local governments think advanced direct transit might have something to offer their communities. The cities of San Jose and Santa Cruz have each begun to explore the possibility of making modern systems a reality in Northern California.

“Like most small communities in America, we’re being choked by the automobile,” explains Mike Rotkin, city councilmember and vice-mayor of Santa Cruz. Getting from the city’s downtown to its University of California campus presents a particular challenge, Rotkin says. “There’s not room for another car on those streets. There’s not another alternative solution, transportation-wise, other than something very much like PRT. It’s something that’s sort of tailor-made for our community.”

Since 2005, PRT supporters in Santa Cruz have been calling attention to the technology’s possibilities,
and in 2006 the city commissioned a feasibility study. The project is slowly moving forward; last summer, the city sent out a request for qualifications, offering to provide right-of-way to a company willing to build and finance a PRT system to connect the city’s downtown to its busy university area.

There are still many questions that need to be answered before anything gets built, Rotkin says: Would the project require a public subsidy? How much would a ride cost? Could the system handle a huge influx of students in a short period of time? What are the visual impacts? “We have these real serious blocks to moving to the next step,” he admits. “It’s not enough to like the concept in the total abstract. We’re at the point of wanting to know, ‘How would the system work in our town?’”

San Jose is asking the same questions. Spurred by Mayor Chuck Reed’s “Green Vision” initiative, which seeks to establish San Jose as a national leader on environmental issues, the city is considering how it can help get the idea of green mobility off the drawing board and onto the streets. Its “Automated Transit Network Demonstration Project” would start by connecting San Jose International Airport to nearby light-rail, Caltrain, and BART facilities.

Originally, the plan was to build a more traditional people-mover to do the job; it would have cost over $500 million for a two-mile system with three stations. Then it occurred to city planners that an advanced direct system might do a better job, not just of linking the airport to existing transit facilities, but creating a network of transportation to nearby destinations, including hotels, offices, and a planned soccer stadium.

“We see opportunities to create extended transit villages around our BART investments, our high-speed rail station, and our light-rail facilities,” explains Hans Larson, the city’s deputy director of transportation.
Plus, this new technology meshes well with San Jose’s vision of itself as an environmental and technological leader. “It’s innovative. This is the kind of thing that San Jose and Silicon Valley do well,” Larson says.

Last fall, San Jose solicited proposals for the project. An overwhelming seventeen responses arrived from around the world, including one from CyberTran, but none seemed quite shovel-ready. Instead of getting discouraged, though, city planners set their sights even higher. Now they’re seeking partnerships with the federal government, asking it to invest in setting technical standards and demonstrating that a system can work. The city hopes to collaborate with the departments of Energy and of Transportation, NASA Ames Laboratory, and Lawrence Livermore National Lab, as well as the aerospace industry. “We would like to not be behind the rest of the world in developing this,” Larson says. “We think Silicon Valley and San Jose is the place to start this as a national industry.”

There’s still some room for skepticism, though. “San Jose’s a pretty thin market,” warns UC Berkeley’s Deakin. She points out that the city is having a hard enough time paying for its existing transit commitments. And while she agrees that advanced transportation systems sound great on paper, she’s cautious about predicting what might happen in practice: “It’s really hard to say in general if this is going to work or not. The studies about whether there’s enough demand haven’t been done. Do people want this, or would they rather drive their cars? You can’t look at it as a pure technological gee-whiz kind of thing.”

Calthorpe, the urban planner, is glad to see municipalities taking direct transit seriously. But he, too, is cautious, having experienced firsthand how challenging it can be to convince governments to commit to PRT. “I constantly put it into my projects, and it gets constantly booted out,” he says. He thinks part of the problem is that there are still no existing examples of a working system. “People say, ‘We’re not going to be the first ones to test drive this stuff.’”

Another challenge is that these systems raise sticky political issues like land-use planning. “Transit doesn’t work at four units per acre,” a typical suburban layout, Calthorpe explains. And planning for the denser, more urban communities that complement rapid transit is difficult, even in the Bay Area. “In California, some people think the answer [to climate change] is vehicle efficiency; that we don’t need to change our lifestyle, we just need to drive Priuses. There’s going to be a giant political battle,” he predicts.

Still, Sinclair is hopeful that CyberTran’s moment has arrived as more people focus on combating climate change. The company has spent the last year working on its third-generation vehicle and software control, and has plans to use a large warehouse in Oakland as its product development center. “We’ve got the technology. There’s no new science necessary. This is entirely doable,” he says. All they need is funding.

The question is whether anyone with enough money to pay for the crucial next step, a demonstration project, will step forward—the New Jersey report estimates a demonstration of a PRT system would require at least a three-year, $50 million to $100 million investment. Right now, the federal government is about the only entity with enough money to spend, and at press time, none of the federal stimulus funds were heading towards direct rapid transit projects.

Perhaps attention from cities like Santa Cruz and San Jose will change that. “There needs to be a local government, grassroots demand for it,” Sinclair insists. “Little cities can’t do it, but what little cities can do is ask big Sacramento or big Washington to do it.” And if that doesn’t do the trick? Sinclair has a Plan B: “Any of you that have a rich uncle that wants to build a train, come talk to me.”

10 thoughts on “Beyond BART

  1. Elizabeth Deakin’s remark:

    The studies about whether there’s enough demand haven’t been done. Do people want this, or would they rather drive their cars? You can’t look at it as a pure technological gee-whiz kind of thing.”

    There have been many many such studies and they show considerable demand. I’d like to get in touch with Rachel Zurer. Couldn’t locate her on your phone tree.


    Dennis Manning – working hard for PRT in Fresno

  2. This is a great article about Group Rapid Transit, but Rachel
    Zurer did not go into the economic necessity of carbon-free
    transit, or the failure of the so-called “economic stimulus”
    The economy choked in 2008 because oil production can no
    longer keep up with the global economy, and the U.S. economy
    cannot be strong without modern efficient transit like Cybertran.

    The problem is that Cybertran and the other GRT new
    technologies are not eligibile for the stimulus funding, so
    instead $trillions are budgeted to be wasted on outdated
    inefficient technology (esp autos, roads, and bridges) that
    will only worsen U.S. dependence on non-existent oil. Current
    stimulus funding is just inflationary, not an investment.
    The solution is for cities and local govt. to push for fed.
    to include newer transit technology in the next inevitable
    economic stimulus bill, and Terrain can help by identifying
    the most likely bay-area demonstration sites such as:
    -Oakland Airport connector
    -San Jose
    -Marin/”SMART” route
    -Berkeley ferry/marina to campus
    -East Bay CSU (Hayward)
    -Automated tram routes have also been suggested for SF and a
    few other locations. A tram route to Sacramento is the most
    efficient solution to the congested railway along the I-80

  3. In Santa Cruz, we are concerned about the impact and cost of
    infrastructure. Even “GRT” seems to have too large a footprint,
    which is why enthusiasts here have tended to focus on the 2-4
    person “pods” of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems.

    Although a fan and supporter of PRT, I am deeply skeptical about
    the alleged “peak oil” phenomenon, and the so-called “necessity”
    (whether economic or environmental) of reducing the carbon footprint
    of transportation. Fortunately, I don’t have to get into an argument
    about this with those who have no doubt. PRT appeals to me because, while
    I love to drive, I hate to deal with the hassles and expenses of driving,
    especially when I am tired, in a hurry, or have had too much of a good
    time at a party. When I want to go somewhere, I want to go directly there,
    without any delays, enjoying reasonable comfort and privacy along the way.
    Of course, as anyone would, I’d also like to pay a minimum for the trip.
    If I can do all that via a particular mode of transportation and still
    “be kind” to my fellow citizens (by helping to reduce traffic congestion
    and the need for ever more pervasive roadway infrastructure) and the environment,
    (by reducing carbon emissions and overall energy usage) then said mode becomes
    compellingly attractive to me. PRT appears to offer such a transportation mode.
    I wouldn’t — couldn’t — choose it for every transportation need, but would
    choose it often enough, instead of firing up and driving my own car, to help
    PRT be financially self-sustaining (assuming that thousands of others would
    also chose PRT sometimes, but not always).

    I know firsthand that PRT projects are not eligible for stimulus funding, because
    our local group inquired about that with our congressional representative. Worse,
    however, is that there seems to be no interest among the House reps or Senators to
    provide for PRT in the catch-all Transportation bill that is currently being
    crafted. If PRT looks good to you, write your representative and Senators in
    Washington to alert them to your interest in this form of transportation. They
    need to know that a constituency exists.

    James Anderson Merritt, member
    Santa Cruz PRT, Inc. (non-profit PRT advocacy group)

  4. Since Light Rail has a long history of never moving more than
 10% of drivers out of their cars, & of requiring huge public 
subsidies, […] actually supports a stalking-horse of the auto 
industry & prevents truly effictive forms of public transit 
from being developed.

    [A portion of this comment has been edited to remove a remark concerning a person which was in violation of Terrain’s commenting policy.]

  5. If you read the article about Denver Airport cited by Reality Check above, you see that the “Denver failure” was for a luggage handling system, the design principles of which had some points in common with PRT design. The Denver fiasco was simply bad engineering and implementation/project management. In contrast, hundreds of factories and package-routing centers employ automated transport systems for parts and other materials, which are equally based on more-or-less the same principles as PRT, and which operate correctly and cost-efficiently. In any case, had the Denver system actually worked and been on time and under budget, the “Reality Checks” of the world would say, “well, that’s no valid example because it isn’t carrying people.” I say this because that is indeed what they HAVE said when such “analagous systems” have been cited as reasons that PRT can work. They do not argue fairly.

    Rather than analogizing from failed luggage-handling systems, or even successful industrial-materials transport systems, let’s actually look at a real-world PRT system for travelers: the ULTra PRT system that shuttles between Terminal 5 and its long-range (business) parking structure at Heathrow Airport in London. The construction of this system is complete, and final tests and demonstrations are now in progress, in anticipation of the start of full passenger service in the next several months. The system is so far along — passing its tests with flying colors — that a conference on PRT technology was held this past April at Heathrow, and conference attendees got to see the system in action and examine the pods and other aspects of the technology for themsevles. On YouTube, you can see videos of the system and pods, as taken by one of the conference attendees:

    I am told that, by fall, we will know just how well a true PRT system can perform to serve real-world passenger needs. I am content to wait and see what happens. I note with some amusement that the fellow (suspected of being “Reality Check” here) used to argue vehemently that no real PRT system had ever been built or WOULD ever be built. [ … A portion of this comment has been edited to remove a remark concerning a person which was in violation of Terrain’s commenting policy.]

    Now that he is wrong on both counts, he has switched tactics to saying that the phrase “personal rapid transit” is a fraud, because the pods (and here he focuses on the ULTra system used at Heathrow) travel at a rate of between 25 and 35 mph. What he won’t admit (out of fear of embarrassment, I expect, as his objection is fairly lame) is that nobody says that the PODS are rapid; rather, that the SYSTEM is rapid. It doesn’t so much matter how fast you travel, as how soon you arrive. Indeed, the AVERAGE speed of travel in PRT is at least as high, and often higher, than other systems that offer faster vehicles — including the highway system at rush hour: The reason being that travel on PRT is direct to destination without any interim stops or other delays, so the passenger travels a consistent 25-35 mph. Systems such as San Francisco’s BART, on the other hand, must run faster vehicles — putting passengers in greater danger should crashes or derailments occur — to get around the near constant acceleration and deceleration necessary to stop at EVERY intermediate stop from point A to B. Top speed of BART trains is 80 MPH. But BART’s average speed — the only speed you care about when deciding how long it will take you to get from A to B — is only 33 MPH. (This is their own estimate.) On the roads, a Ferrari doesn’t get you there any faster than a 1949 VW Bug in bumper-to-bumper, gridlock traffic. The good news for PRT fans is that average speed increases to 40-50 MPH are quite feasible and economical, and can be anticipated in the design of present-day PRT systems that might initially run at lower speeds until people are comfortable with the systems and their technologies. PRT systems start out competitive with the fastest general purpose “rapid transit” systems, and include lots of room for improvement.

    I wonder what the “Reality Checks” of the world will say when the Heathrow system is serving passengers successfully. I am also content to wait to see what happens on THAT score. 🙂

  6. James,

    Agreed on all points above.

    [ … A portion of this comment has been edited to remove a remark concerning a person which was in violation of Terrain’s commenting policy.]

    I too look forward to seeing Heathrow go online & demonstrate the utility of PRT to the world. There is a critical mass of City governors in the US, Europe & elsewhere that are just waiting for the opportunity to do something meaningful. These pilot projects at Heathrow & Masdar will give them the ability to bring the technology to their constituents.

  7. Terrain staff have edited several of the comments in this string to remove personal remarks made about an individual which were in violation of our commenting policy. Although comments to the Terrain web site post automatically without moderation from Terrain staff, our staff reserve the right to later delete or edit comments that violate our policy. Our policy, posted here, is as follows:

    Comments allow readers to interact and advance discussion about issues raised in Terrain, and we welcome readers’ suggestions and participation. Comments submitted to the site are automatically posted without being approved by Terrain’s editors. Terrain reserves the right to edit or delete comments that are libelous, defamatory, personal attacks, hate speech or spam. Please keep conversations civil and on-topic. If you’d like a forum for discussing other topics not in Terrain, or have concerns about comments posted on the site, please contact us at

    We appreciate the spirited debate going on here and invite you to keep commenting — just please refrain from making accusations or personal remarks about other individuals.

  8. PRT is wonderful in concept but the reality is that implementation will be extremely difficult without massive grassroots support. Environmental laws inhibit this technology, even as the terrible array of petroleum lobbies continues to control our economy and ways of life.

    In the near-term, having looked at many proposals to retrofit or adapt the existing transport system in my studies at UC Berkeley and beyond, nothing I’m aware of has more merit than electrified transit. PRT/GRT/etcRT is one form of this; light rail and BART are forms of this. However, they do not serve, as Calthorpe has stated, low density neighborhoods (PRT might, if ever implemented; it can be argued it would be cheaper than maintaining roads and the cars that use them to provide PRT to every home).

    But wait, what have we “forgotten”!?

    Too often overlooked is the form of electrification in which everyday trucks and buses — rubber-tired vehicles — hook up to overhead wires. These are generally known as trolleybuses and, for cargo, trolleytrucks.

    Any existing truck or bus can be retrofitted to work from electricity provided via overhead wires.

    Such vehicles are more powerful and more efficient; less polluting and generate less carbon; they are much quieter; economically they’re much cheaper in the long-term, life-cycle analysis even before calculating for externalities; trolleytrucks and trolleybuses will eventually be powered by renewable energy for an even better, rock-bottom carbon footprint; and can use existing roads and bridges *IMMEDIATELY*, whereas PRT requires a whole new level of built environment using increasingly scarce energy and resources (those facilities are convenient because they’re what we have now, although it looks quite likely we will not be able to maintain them long and should begin investing in phasing them into something new at once; the Bay Area’s Regional Transportation Plan currently allocates an enormous percentage of the whole to an admittedly failing plan to try to maintain them. The Plan also invests in increased ‘free’ways even as it claims to be a dramatic advance toward cutting carbon emissions).

    I give a presentation on this 100+ years tried and true technology, including a discussion of health benefits and how it mutually augments a move toward more livable, walkable, bikeable communities. A version of my slides can be found on the web, here:

    I’m happy to give this presentation anywhere in the world and would like to see an advocacy movement form around these issues (including PRT, to the extent it’s viable and appropriate to pursue at the time).


    Jason Meggs, MCP/MPH

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *