Move People, Not Metal
6 Jun, 2008 11:51 am
Our current transportation system uses enormous amounts of energy primarily to move the weight of vehicles which transport passengers and freight. Bill James thinks we can improve transportation energy efficiency by an order of magnitude if we focus on moving the weight of passengers and freight instead of the weight of the vehicles that carry them.
His idea has taken shape as the JPod, a cross between a gondola and a monorail. Other groups are developing systems that work on the same principle. In some systems the vehicles ride on the track or guideway. In others the vehicles are suspended from an overhead track like the JPod. (James provides links to sites for several other systems on the JPod home page.)
All the systems share three important characteristics: First, they are designed as personal rapid transit; users can ride alone or just with their party if they wish. Second, riders move to their destinations nonstop. All they do is enter their destination into the onboard computer. Third, riders don't wait for a vehicle; vehicles wait for them on a siding while other traffic flows past the station without stopping.
What James calls the "parasitic mass" is greatly reduced. A JPod weighs about 400 pounds. An automobile weighs many times more; for instance, a 2008 Toyota Camry weighs about 3,500 pounds. Moving one person with a JPod uses considerably less energy simply because the mass being moved is only a fraction of the Camry with passenger. The JPod, of course, multiplies its efficiency with each additional passenger. And, there is no reason it cannot be used for local delivery of freight as well.
In addition, James has designed the JPod system to operate on solar power gathered using panels mounted above the track. The system would be connected to the electrical grid; but it could supply most, if not all, of its own power.
He estimates construction costs of a JPod system would be one-tenth that of light rail and could be deployed much faster.
So, what's the holdup in deploying such systems? First, they are new. People aren't used to such ideas. Second, as James points out, such systems don't fit any checklist that government transportation agencies use to evaluate transit solutions. The agencies simply don't know what to make of packet switching transportation systems. Third, James is proposing such systems as profitmaking ventures with local partners who help fund and run the system. He believes private ownership of such systems will continuously drive improvement and efficiency and allow much more rapid deployment. This is yet another puzzle to planning agenices. Finally, there is the right-of-way issue. James believes that standards for efficiency might break this logjam. If a municipality sets a standard, say, five times the current mileage standard for cars, as the threshold for granting public right-of-ways to entrepreneurs willing to build a JPod or similar system, then he believes private capital will be available to construct such systems.
Municipalities would get a cut of the fares for granting the right-of-way and could use the money any way they see fit. Profits accruing to the owners from the first parts of the system could be used to extend it further. As with any network, the more nodes (read: stations) there are, the more valuable the network becomes, a perfect incentive for the owners to expand.
The personal rapid transit idea seems as if it would be acceptable to the motoring public because it is based on current transportation preferences. The vehicles seat four just like a car. The market has already shown that this configuration is preferred overwhelmingly by consumers. Second, users make nonstop trips from their point of origin to their destination just like they can in a car. But there are distinct advantages. There are no parking hassles. And there is no traffic congestion to deal with since pods do not have to wait behind other pods at stations nor for the pod ahead of them on the track. The pods are in constant motion until they reach their destination.
Will the cost put riders off? James believes such a system would first appear where travel by cab is the main option, for example, from an airport to a downtown area. It could therefore charge approximately what cabs charge. As the network expands, it would have to compete with other transit including automobiles. But, it would also be able to reduce its per-trip costs since so many more trips would be taken on a given amount of infrastructure. That means that personal rapid transit could end up being no more expensive than current public transit while serving more areas and providing greater convenience and speed.
The logic of such systems may very well propel their adoption over time. But James doesn't believe we have much time. He worries that the all-time peak in world oil production will arrive as soon as the next few years, but certainly no later than 25 years from now. That means we must act quickly to retool our entire transportation system. The personal rapid transit idea could be implemented quickly, it could run without fossil fuels, and it could increase energy efficiency by an order of magnitude or more. That sounds like a successful path for making a fast transition to a sustainable transportation system.
While such systems aren't the only possible solutions, they have the advantage of being able to work with existing transportation infrastructure such as trains, planes and buses along existing right-of-ways. And, they have the potential to replace the worst transportation villains, personal automobiles. This is especially true in cities plagued by traffic congestion.
Some personal rapid transit systems are scheduled to be built in near future. If they prove themselves workable, will the world wake up in time to take advantage of this revolutionary idea? Bill James thinks we have a fighting chance that it will.