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.”

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