Peak Oil, Climate Change and PRT

PRT Enthusiasts ignore two critical pots of information when evaluating future transportation needs: Peak Oil and Climate Change.

Our transportation choices are influenced largely by two factors: perceptions of convenience and relative cost. Right now, private automobiles are the cheapest, most convenient mode of transportation for more than a mile up to several hundred miles of travel. Therefore, most people buy and use private automobiles and eschew public transportation.

Peak Oil and Climate Change are raising the cost of everything. During the past spike in gasoline prices, private automobile traffic declined precipitously, as did transport by truck. Cargo ships are still travelling at 10 knots rather than their earlier 24 knots to save fuel. As gas prices return to $4.00 per gallon and beyond, more people will leave their cars at home and travel by foot, bicycle and public transportation, all without the expense, energy consumption and urban blight of building a PRT network.

As climate change takes hold and global agricultural patterns change, precious fossil fuels will be reserved for moving food and water about the planet rather than people. Localism is already seen as the response to climate change, as we seek ways to grow our own food within easy transportation distance from our communities.

All this will change public attitudes about transportation, as we all pull together in mutual aid to accommodate the coming changes. PRT fosters individualism, on demand services and elitism, all of which are antithetical in a world demanding local cooperative solutions.

PRT is a 20th Century solution to a 21st Century problem

One thought on “Peak Oil, Climate Change and PRT

  1. It was interesting to read this post, and I hope our email exchange helped in shaping it. What I guess I’d like to stress to you is that PRT is not some monolithic thing, there are a lot of people who are working very independently from an equal number of different engineering approaches. I would say that a significant portion of them honestly thought they were inventing something new, only later to discover there already was something called PRT. Thus, I would say it is a mistake for anyone to think of it as a unified movement.

    Because PRT is not monolithic, it is also an error to characterize PRT as having a single social agenda. This is where I think you have jumped to conclusions about PRT, in my experience the developers of PRT are so focused on engineering as to usually have no social agenda at all — other than creating transit that will be accessible and useful to the greatest number of people. Here are four instances from your post, and maybe we can have a further discussion:

    1. “Localism.” This is a great way to help reduce transportation demand and promote community, but I see nothing in PRT that is inherently anti-local. If people live in a big city, many times an urban village or smart growth development is never going to satisfy all needs for shopping, work, education, services, etc. Some needs are met in other parts of town, it’s one of the reasons we have cities. Some kind of public transit system is needed. But consider that reducing transportation demand through localism is paradoxical: expensive train and bus systems become less economically viable, and drives up per-passenger energy usage. In my view PRT is a last mile(s) solution that can make conventional transit more popular, as well as bringing train-like transit service to underserved areas.

    2. “Individualism.” I think individualism predates PRT by some millennia. What’s your definition? Besides, the only individualistic aspect of PRT is how it responds to the travel needs of each passenger. Other than that PRT would be fairly commonplace — identical public vehicles and public stations.

    3. “On-demand services.” When I put coins in a vending machine, I expect to receive my Fritos. When I flip a light switch the lights should come on. And when I turn on the tap I expect water to flow out the spout. But when I go to the bus stop, there is some waiting involved, sometimes a lot of waiting! PRT is intended, partly, as a way to make public transportation more responsive to people. Perhaps you can expand on how you think on-demand service is bad for society, and how you think PRT would necessarily exacerbate it. Would it help to call it “request-responsive service”?

    4. “Elitism.” Again, maybe you can expand on what you mean. PRT is not a limousine. As envisioned, given a particular service area, PRT would provide every user with the same level of transit service.

    No one wants to be a slave to technology, so I believe in its social management. We are that social management: how technology is used, whether it is good or bad for society, is up to us. For example, earlier in your post you wrote that PRT would bring urban blight. Now, there are already a lot of things in the streetscape that I see as blight. I’m a photographer, so power lines and telephone poles are anathema to me, but I am not against electricity or phones. There’s also a pedestrian bridge near my house that is the ugliest thing in the world, but I am not opposed to pedestrian bridges– I am against bad designs. Likewise, PRT could be ugly (believe me, there are some prototypes that fell out of the ugly tree), but doesn’t have to be if we exercise social management — as in, we want infrastructure to have architectural detailing and be low-profile; as in, we want the vehicles to look like transit, not UFOs.

    Through awareness and policy, I am confident we can have the benefits of technology while responsibly managing its use so as to minimize negatives. The key is for the public to take an active role early in the adoption process, as you are doing. So while I think you are mistaken, I am appreciative of your principled skepticism.



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