IDEAS FOR TORONTO: Personal Rapid Transit

Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) is one of those futuristic modes of transit that has never left the public’s imagination. At its core, PRT  has always been perceived as a way of combining the benefits of rapid public transit with those of private transit. Imagine being able to leave your house, take a short walk to a PRT station, and be whisked away to the closest TTC station or GO terminal along a web of transit lines. While PRT may seem like a futuristic idea from The Jetson’s, urban motorists may be jumping into these mini-streetcars in the not-so-distant future. [ EDITOR’S NOTE: also see Spacing’s article on PRT from the summer 2006 issue ]

A joint venture between the European Union, Stockholm University, and the Royal Institute of Technology will bring PRT one-step closer to becoming a viable transit technology. Pilot Sparbilar is a pilot project that will connect Stockholm University with the Royal Institute of Technology, which are currently separated by a distance of one subway stop. With a completion date of 2015, it will provide ten intermediate stations between the two campuses. The system will be fully integrated with SL, Stockholm’s transit authority, allowing passengers the convenience of using one fare system.

Pilot Sparbilar will function as a web network, letting passengers choose their destination from a variety of options, as opposed to being confined to stops along a single route. The system works by distributing automated five-seat PRT cars to stations based on user demand, not on a pre-defined schedule, using a complex algorithm to ensure short wait times. Currently there is a test track in Uppsala, which has been testing summer and winter track conditions as seen in the photo above.

At a cost of roughly $11-million per kilometre of track, compared with $40-million for LRT and $200-300 million for subways, PRT is also an economically viable option. Powered by electricity, PRT further reduces it operating costs by using solar panels on the roof of the cars, hard plastic wheels to lower friction, and magnetic propulsion. It’s estimated that each Pilot Sparbilar car will use one-third the amount of electricity of a conventional electric car. The low infrastructure and operating costs will allow fare revenues to cover the cost of the system.

However for all its benefits, there are drawbacks to PRT. Hourly capacity is less than subways, and therefore would never be able to fully replace a subway system. There are also personal security concerns, with no driver and small self-contained cars. To mitigate these security issues, every car is equipped with a camera and panic button.

The most practical use for PRT is as a feeder system for the more robust forms of transit like subway and LRT. Picture a PRT system snaking through Leslieville, Leaside or the Annex, taking you to the closest TTC stop. Alternatively, PRT could be used for large campuses and airports. There are currently two operational PRT systems in the world. The first is a campus-to-downtown link in Morgantown, West Virginia (which Spacing wrote about in 2008), built in the 1970s as a transit research project. The second is a new system at Heathrow Airport in London called ULTra. Both are surface mounted systems, however it’s also possible to have a suspended PRT configuration.

In Toronto, there are endless possibilities where PRT might be utilized.  A University of Toronto–Queen’s Park–hospital district–Ryerson University route could be implelmented with dozens of stations to pick an choose from. Allowing students, academics, politicians, and medical professionals a quick link to one another. A Toronto Island–CN Tower–Union Station–St. Lawrence Market–Distillery District route could become the Waterfront Line, perfect for visitors to the city. We could even go as far as thinking of PRT as way to one day rid the Gardiner of its congestion.

Could you see PRT becoming a viable transit strategy for Toronto? If so, where would you picture PRT lines being implemented?

37 comments

  1. I’ve wanted PRT systems for Toronto since I read about them in early 2004.

    They sound like a great idea, but the drawback on the “sitting with 4 other strangers in an unmonitored car” thing does sound sketchy. Never thought of that before. Would have to be policed some how.

  2. “PRT” has always been a goofball idea. It takes the inefficiency of automobiles and adds all of the infrastructure expense of conventional rapid transit. Or more, actually, because you need so much of it if you’re chasing the door-to-door pipe-dream. Where would this stuff go? People typically pitch it as an elevated monorail, so that means that all of your stations have to be elevated, too. PRT advocates usually imagine each station sitting on a siding, so that through-traffic isn’t held up by vehicles loading and unloading, so now you get the technical complexity of switching and signalling all of that elevated monorail track, plus the basic fact that you’re doing it all a couple of stories above the street.

  3. Well, if you’ve been skiing you’ve sat with strangers on a chairlift or gondola: not so different. Also, subway cars are essentially unmonitored, and I do not rely on any TTC staff for my safety…

  4. From what I’ve read and seen, PRT is a dead-end gadgetbahn just like maglev, monorails, and cable cars. We are better off spending money on things that actually work like commuter rail, subways, lrt, streetcars, brt, and buses. We already have a network of those.

    The thing about transit is that if you already have a network, expanding that network has a much bigger return on investment than building a second small network of something else.

  5. “We could even go as far as thinking of PRT as way to one day rid the Gardiner of its congestion.”

    I think Steve Munro has a better solution (albeit for the DVP, not the Gardiner): swan boats!

  6. I think that it is premature to dismiss PRT. Making comparisons with subways ignores the fact that subways have the capacity as a matter of necessity. Much like the need for high speed trunk lines (like OC43s) in a computer network. When traffic takes more distributed routes (akin to an ad hoc or MESH network), the need for specific high capacities is alleviated with little to no penalty.

  7. PRT seems like a neat idea, until you picture just how much infrastructure you need in order for it to be useful as urban transit. It also can’t handle points of significant density, such as transfers to higher-order transit. You get a hell of a lot more bang for your buck from cycling infrastructure, bike-sharing, frequent bus routes in dedicated lanes, LRT, and subways.

    Really, it’s a pie in the sky idea that encourages the illusion that suburban density areas can have frequent transit to everywhere. It isn’t anywhere close to making financial sense.

  8. The problem with PRT is that it is possible to envision specific environments where it might be practical such as a small circulator system within a closed area like a campus or airport. Things start to get out of hand when you try to take the concept out to the street because the amount of infrastructure (let along the intrusions the guideway and stations create) grows very quickly. This is what the system that eventually became the SRT was proposed as. We were going to have a network of PRT vehicles running all over the city. The proposal fell apart not just because of the maglev component, but because the complexity of the infrastructure was impractical for the capacity the network would have needed.

  9. And furthermore, I am glad to see that Swan Boat technology is now embedded in the Toronto transportation aesthetic. One must fight long, lonely battles to get this sort of recognition.

  10. Wow … my esteem for Spacing just took a severe blow with the consideration of the PRT fantasy.  I can’t believe you published this which will only give more ammunition to anti-public transit trolls.  PRT is a solution for only very specific transport problems, like the funicular, or the little underground train that goes from the Capitol to other government buildings in Washington DC.

    While I am here, let me just say that monorail, despite being mocked on The Simpsons and elsewhere, is not a pipe dream.  There is a very profitable one in Tokyo, as well as a convenient and elegant one in Sydney as just 2 examples.

    A Toronto Monorail loop connecting the downtown districts would be an incredible and attainable addition to transit in central Toronto.  Toronto Reference Library — Gay Village — Ryerson — Massey Hall — St. LAwrence Market — Union Station — Skydome — Queen West — AGO — U of T — Annex — Yorkville.  IMAGINE.

  11. The Metro Monorail (formerly Sydney Monorail, and originally TNT Harbourlink) is a single-loop Von Roll MkIII monorail in the city of Sydney, Australia, that connects Darling Harbour, Chinatown and the Sydney central business and shopping districts. There are eight stations on 3.6 km of track, with four trains operating simultaneously. Major attractions and facilities such as the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney Aquarium and Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre are served.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metro_Monorail

    =====================

    Tokyo Monorail (東京モノレール Tōkyō Monorēru?) is a monorail system connecting Haneda Airport in Ōta, Tokyo, Japan to Hamamatsuchō Station in Minato, Tokyo. The trains operate along an elevated line that follows the coast of Tokyo Bay. The trip from the airport to Hamamatsuchō costs ¥470 each way.
    The line opened in 1964 to coincide with the 1964 Summer Olympics. Built by Hitachi Monorail, the first cars were made in Japan from the German ALWEG design (also used in the Seattle and the original Disneyland Monorail), and were replaced by newer models in 1969, 1977, 1982, and 1989.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokyo_Monorail

  12. TokyaTuds: Yeah, why would you want a magazine to present a different perspective that starts a discussion and makes you think?

    I think it could work in places like hydro corridors or business parks.

  13. My Personal Rapid Transit vehicle is a bicycle; that I can put on a bus, streetcar, or subway, when needed.

  14. In Toronto, this would only carry 3 passengers as one seat would have to be reserved for the paper transfer/token-taker.

    Leave the innovation to other cities; the ones with transit smart cards, separated bike lanes, pedestrian streets, public bike share, buried hydro lines, tasteful public squares, non Fisher Price garbage cans…

  15. And 3am (west coast) comment fail. What I meant to say is that given how PRT people tend to be quite vocal, expect them to show up on this blog and talk all about how the latest and greatest in their technology will save your city. Won’t cost you a thing, honest. Robert Moses used both of those arguments to sell huge freeways to New York City/State. Look how well that turned out…

  16. Really? PRTs? REALLY? Is this a misplaced April Fools joke?

    I’ll be boorish and blunt and just say this is a totally asinine idea.

  17. From what I’ve read and seen, PRT is a dead-end gadgetbahn just like maglev, monorails, and cable cars. We are better off spending money on things that actually work like commuter rail, subways, lrt, streetcars, brt, and buses. We already have a network of those.

    The thing about transit is that if you already have a network, expanding that network has a much bigger return on investment than building a second small network of something else.
    Comment by Leo Petr
    July 6, 2010 | 3:36 pm

    “PRT” has always been a goofball idea. It takes the inefficiency of automobiles and adds all of the infrastructure expense of conventional rapid transit. Or more, actually, because you need so much of it if you’re chasing the door-to-door pipe-dream. Where would this stuff go? People typically pitch it as an elevated monorail, so that means that all of your stations have to be elevated, too. PRT advocates usually imagine each station sitting on a siding, so that through-traffic isn’t held up by vehicles loading and unloading, so now you get the technical complexity of switching and signalling all of that elevated monorail track, plus the basic fact that you’re doing it all a couple of stories above the street.
    Comment by Eric S. Smith
    July 6, 2010 | 3:15 pm

    Spoken like a true bunch of technophobic Neo-Luddite slackers who hate any kind of new promising technology and can bash it to bits while surfing the Internet and using wireless comm-links. Do you two curmudgeons have anything useful to do except bitch about rail tech? Or are you able to give up your cynicism and technophobia and accept new rail technologies that might revolutionize the planet? If you can, then here’s a website that will enlighten you: http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif

    After you both read this, come back and give me (and the rest of us) your new knowledge.

  18. Loiuse, I did grant that there might be a couple of specific applications, but Spacing is usually sophisticated enough to distinguish between real public transit and a boondoggle fantasy.  You are right that it spurs discussion, however.

  19. There are certainly areas in Toronto where PRT would not be a viable alternative to the traditional subway, streetcar, and bus systems simply because it does not have the capacity. As Michael D pointed out, PRT cannot handle significant transit transfer points. ie. PRT would not be able to replace Yonge and Bloor stn or Kipling TTC/GO stn, nor do I think it should.

    There are also always issues with introducing a new type of transit system, along with the complexity of the demand-based PRT system. However, PRT could be a user-friendly transit system that might be attractive to Toronto’s roughly 12 million visitors each year. A common complaint of Toronto is that it is not the most easy to get to know city for out-of-towners. Bike lanes are great, and Bixi bike systems are a must for tourists, but they only help Toronto during the warmer seasons.

    Remember, the key to the Ideas for Toronto feature is to try and stimulate reader feedback and discussion.

    Adrian

  20. Now that we’ve torn this new idea to bits, let’s all go take a ride on the slow unreliable streetcar which has operated in basically the same way since our great-grandparents rode it.

  21. The suggested routes make little sense. The Annex? Really? You want some from of track-and-station infrastructure to be brought into one of Toronto’s more elegant neighbourhoods? Or UofT to Queen’s Park? The distances suggested are too short to warrant a system like this when I can walk them in 5 minutes or less.

  22. Astin, “everywhere is walking distance” if you have enough time.”  FYI, monorail is pretty quiet, the infrastructure can be squeezed in to narrow ROW, and all my suggested stops are major commercial/ institutional areas.  I am not saying bring the Monorail up Huron Sreet, but people live on streets with streetcars and this would be little different (in some ways better).

    ROW I am thinking St. George/ Beverley/ John to the west, Dupont/ Davenport to the north, Jarvis to the east, and Front or Esplanade/alleys to the south.

  23. PRT would be cheaper to ride than a taxi. Most designs envision no more than $2 per ride (not per passenger, per *ride*).

    I’ve been following PRT for many years, and I’ve commented extensively on it in various forums. It is not fantasy and it is not “gadgetbahn”, but it’s not a panacea either.

    It’s a real technology which promises to fill a transit *niche* – as distributor/feeder to existing transit, and as an introductory system in car-dominated areas which don’t have the density for heavy rail solutions. It does not disrupt the street level at all and has very low land requirements, by virtue of its slim design and small, mostly elevated stations. Therefore, it can be introduced into most areas with little disruption.

    The light weight also keeps costs down and infrastructure light (1m diameter poles every 50 feet or so).

    Compared to cars, it is MUCH safer and doesn’t have the high land use. Compared to bus/rail transit, it’s much more convenient, faster, and always available. Even with these benefits, it’s cheaper to operate than rail/buses because there is no driver. It is more energy efficient than cars, buses and rail.

    Do not reject it based on the opinions of a few naysayers. It’s a novel solution to a difficult problem, and it deserves consideration.

    For a nice article on PRT and its history, see this Boston Globe article:

    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/10/04/invasion_of_the_pod_car/

  24. Ben Smith’s question is an excellent one, and I suspect that robotic taxis that magically don’t run people over are actually a more attainable fantasy than low-volume two-way elevated monorail with stations every 250 metres over all of our main roads (or our not-so-main roads, in the suburban feeder application).

    As to the question of handling interchanges with higher-order transit: it’s not that PRT can’t replace Bloor/Yonge, it’s that it can’t even serve it. Consider the pie in the sky rendering here:

    http://sf.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/08_13/Picture_9.jpg

    Setting aside the fact that it’s unidirectional and only accessible to people who can quickly climb a flight of stairs in all weather, the depicted station siding with its bumper to bumper cars represents a lousy 24 seats. A single subway car has 66. You won’t have everyone who got off a subway train at a busy station on to your PRT before the next subway train arrived. And people waiting to get off of the PRT, presumably at another platform not illustrated, would be sitting and stewing about missing their trains long after they’d have been off of a feeder bus.

    Futuristic robotic taxis (I’m sure that they’d involve lasers in some way, and feel free to imagine hydrogen fuel cells and even spherical wheels, while you’re at it) would be similarly unable to cope with high volumes, but at least you could deploy them in low volume scenarios without breaking the bank on elevated infrastructure.

  25. No, see, what we all need is our own Inspector Gadget car.

  26. Inspector Gadget’s car could turn into various vehicles, which is indeed a strength, but I don’t think that it could drive itself. Advantage: K.I.T.T.

  27. I’ve suggested this on other posts, but what about the idea of a fleet of 5,000 or so minibuses (with drivers) that can seat 6-8 people comfortably. The control system behind these would be directed by cellphone/GPS call (you’d call to request a pickup from your location within the next 10 minutes, and to specify your destination). A software solution would identify the nearest minibus with a seat space going in roughly your direction and direct the driver to pick you up. This is sort of a high tech reworking of “collective taxis” that exist in other cities. The price could be set higher than normal TTC fares but lower than an individual taxi ride. It could work well in the ‘burbs here. I agree with other posters that the overhead with PRT as described in the article seems excessive for its benefit.

  28. “From what I’ve read and seen, PRT is a dead-end gadgetbahn just like maglev, monorails, and cable cars.” (Leo Petr)

    None of the systems mentioned above is a “dead-end gadgetbahn”. Maglev works better than HSR. It can take passengers 100+ mph faster, at lower overall cost. JR East in Japan have announced plans to build the Chuo Shinkansen (maglev) line, which will effectively replace the current Tokaido Shinkansen (HSR). When ready (scheduled date, 2025), Tokyo to Osaka journey time will be cut from 2.5 hrs to 1 hr. Monorails are very successful in urban transit applications — see Tokyo Haneda Line and Chongqing Metro, for example. Cable cars are very good for climbing steep gradients, so they have their their niche.

    It’s early days yet for PRT, but it looks like it has everything required to be a major player in the people-mover / circulator space.

  29. Nick — 5,000 minibuses with drivers? That is 3 times the entire TTC bus fleet. Keep in mind that the biggest expense in the TTC’s balance sheet is salaries and benefits — primarily bus, streetcar and subway drivers. Just like PRT, dial-a-bus is another one of those great ideas that has been studied to death since at least the 1970s and proposed by all sorts of academics and theorists but no-one has been able to make it work effectively in practice.

    I suspect that there are two reasons that PRT has never caught on:

    a) the benefits of a one-seat, door-to-door ride are only really optimized when you have a fairly substantial network including numerous lines. For the Morgantown/WVU PRT, it only has 5 stations on a single line, and there is little travel time benefit in bypassing a station. For that matter, the travel time is not much better than a standard surface bus route, in the order of 15 mph on average. The real travel time benefits of “door-to-door” service (and the really futuristic element) come through having vehicles interchanging between routes so that riders don’t have to transfer — but the larger the network, I would expect the more difficult it would be to manage effectively.

    b) the cost to implement. The point of the technology is to serve low-density areas that wouldn’t support heavy rail (or, presumably, light rail), yet this means that the level of ridership is going to be low. It is tough to justify $10M per km (and this seems low to me — does it include vehicles? accessible stations? annual operating and maintenance costs? etc.) to serve a low-density area that would otherwise see fairly low transit ridership. You can argue that riders would be attracted by a fabulous PRT service, but try convincing a skeptical City Council and public of that when you are trying to build a line that is long enough to actually serve trips that couldn’t be done by walking.

  30. PRT is a waste of resources and an impractical idea. WE already have PRT, its called the car.

  31. By the time PRT is perfected, we will already have commercially available electric cars with infrastructure to support them. That is the environmentally-friendly future of personal transit.

    Meanwhile, let’s get back to fixing up the now-decrepit modes of public transit we already have with proper station spacing, pricing, fare collection, lane separation, vehicle configuration, etc. I have absolutely no problem with relying on the streetcar tech that my great-grandparents rode if we can speed their operation, increase their number, and expand their rails to be equivalent to what they once were in the 1920s. Our best neighbourhoods are streetcar suburbs, so let’s stick with what works and expand it across the 416. It’s in our personal and city DNA.

  32. Well, for technology that will never work, it’s interesting that there are three separate vendors with working systems and contracts to deploy them. ULTra is furthest along with its Heathrow deployment due to be opened to public service any day now after undergoing months of user acceptance testing. Then there is 2getthere with Masdar (although Abu Dhabi might be wavering in its plans) and Vectus with Suncheon, South Korea. These are all baby-steps systems, but they do work.

    Now, no one ever suggested ripping out the subway tracks on the Bloor Danforth line and running PRT vehicles in the tunnels. No, there’s no way that PRT could handle the load transfering between Bloor and Yonge. Hell, subway can barely do it! The idea with PRT is that you avoid funneling everyone through a single bottleneck. If anything, PRT is mainly competing with bus service. Buses are expensive to operate, slow, and unattractive to riders. PRT could certainly play a role in feeder/circulator applications around subway or commuter rail stations. Park-and-rides wouldn’t need to be right next to the station, allowing more urban nodes to be built around them instead. Stations could be spaced further, lowering construction cost and travel times on heavy rail service.

    That PRT has failed in the past is not proof that the technology doesn’t work. It took decades of experimentation before the Wright brothers achieved flight. Hell, the problem with PRT hasn’t even necessarily been technical (Cabintaxi demonstrated pretty advanced PRT capability back in the ’70s), but more to do with business models and regulation. 

    And electric/computer guided (robo-) cars are not the answer either. They don’t help with surface congestion, and I doubt their ability to operate safely in all weather conditions with low headways. They most likely will play a role, but they won’t help with the problem of getting people out of their cars in the first place, allowing us to free some of the 30%+ of our cities dedicated to cars and their infrastructure.

  33. This whole thing is totally wrong-headed. The point about public transit should not be to give extra convenience to those people who would sacrifice everything to live in the burb with their large house and backyard. It should be about encouraging people to adopt a more compact life style, which will bring down the cost of services, help the environment, and also create vibrant high-density neighbourhood. Believe me, even with this thing, the guys in the burb will look at it and say, “nice, but no thanks, I will stick to my car”!

  34. “Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) is one of those futuristic modes of transit that has never left the public’s imagination. ”

    How can it leave our imagination when there’s always some gearhead author trying to promote it like it was the new Segway.

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