It is the Wrong Debate -- The Wrong Issues

by Jon Bogle

April 29th 1997

I have read the debate between Dr. Anderson and Professor Vuchic along with the various comments on the debate by others. The debate itself is symptomatic of why such a good idea as PRT has languished in obscurity for so long. Proponents of PRT tend to be transportation professionals and look at PRT systems only in terms of transportation issues. In the debate, everyone becomes trapped in a mass transit imbroglio. Mass transit, which has riders in large conveyances, on a rigid schedule, cooped up with strangers, is not an attractive or reasonable option. No one actually wants to travel in those conditions. If they did, then plenty of mass transit options would be already working, having been demanded by a vocal constituency. The vocal political and economic constituency has been for roads and automobiles because the desire is for independent personal travel.

The solution is not better mass transit but, rather, an alternative to the automobile. Replacing the automobile is the only practical means for solving a host of serious, often deadly, problems. To replace the automobile, a new system will have to compete successfully against the strengths of the automobile. This can be accomplished by a PRT system. The money and political attention that now flow to automobiles can be rechanneled, by normal competitive pressures, to support the new system.

I live on a dirt road in rural Pennsylvania. I have spent the last four years, on and off, designing CULOR , a suspended PRT system, but my interest is not primarily focused on transportation. I am interested in the future, and I see a bleak future, unless a way can be found to replace the automobile. The automobile once offered freedom, convenience, and economic growth, but it has now become a monster by amplification. Automobile induced air pollution and petroleum usage are conjoined evil twins whose effects are obvious in our cities and horrendous in most third world cities. Breathing Mexico City's air is equal to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. There are other more immediate dangers. In the United States in 1995, there were fourteen million automobile accidents which resulted in forty two thousand deaths and over two million injuries. Added to issues of health, safety, and energy usage, are the peripheral liabilities of outrageous land usage, decay of urban centers, and the trashing of our countryside.

Our industrial culture and civilization is supported on a petroleum bubble which will pop, like a pricked balloon, when the oil reserves start to run out. We had a preview of things to come during the Arab oil embargo in the mid-seventies. In the economic "stagflation" that resulted, prices for all energy related and petrochemical based segments of the economy, like food and plastics, spiraled rapidly upward while the larger economy became moribund. Our modern industrial economy runs on an oil standard just as previous economies had a gold standard. Even modern agriculture runs a calorie deficit with the energy input from petroleum being greater than the food calorie return. Our government clearly understands the situation, having been willing to put troops on the ground in the Persian Gulf to secure supply lines.

In 1994 we Americans used one hundred and forty billion gallons of gasoline in our cars. As the great populations of the third world continue to industrialize, they will become more insistent competitors for oil reserves and the rate of reserve depletion will rapidly accelerate. Gasoline usage is currently increasing by seven percent a year in China. We need a replacement system for the automobile so that the Chinese, Indonesians, Indians, Southeast Asians, and South Americans will have an alternative to following our bad example. There are some estimates that the proven oil reserves will be start to run out fairly early in the next century. Getting a handle on usage now can put off this inevitable moment, allowing us some time to develop alternative sources of energy.

Air pollution, safety, and energy conservation are problems a PRT system can cure. Compared to the automobile; a national CULOR style PRT system would save ten of thousands of lives each year, avoid over a million injuries, save hundreds of billions of dollars in operating costs, use less than ten percent of the fuel and produce less than five percent of the air pollution.

To function as a competitor to the automobile, a PRT system would , like the automobile, have to be practically everywhere. A national CULOR/PRT system with two hundred thousand miles of guideway would be a full scaffold with enough mileage to cover every major urban and suburban thoroughfare in the country. It would also connect urban centers using the interstate highway right-of-ways. A national CULOR/PRT system this size would require about eight hundred billion dollars to build.

Now, eight hundred billion dollars is a goodly sum, but I can show you the money!

In 1993, we Americans spent five hundred and sixty billion private consumer dollars to buy, run, insure, and fix our cars. For the individual, the bill is proportionately high. The average new automobile bought and driven twelve thousand miles a year, cost the owner thirty thousand dollars during the first five years. The various levels of government spent another eighty six and a half billion dollars to build and maintain the road system. The total, six hundred and forty eight billion dollars, is almost half of what we spend to run federal government. One of the positive fallouts from a national PRT system will be a much more efficient economy.

Proponents of PRT systems have focused on mass transit imagery in part, I believe, to avoid the attention of the powerful economic and political forces attached to the highway/automobile complex. The problem is that there is very little money for mass transit, while roads and cars are soaking up enormous amounts of funding. In order for PRT to have any chance of succeeding, someone is going to have to poke that bear and I, for one, would like to have some powerful friends standing nearby when it happens.

CULOR, my own version of PRT, is more a data system and a child of electricity than a thing of hardware. Let's recruit the power utilities and perhaps the communication utilities to the task of building a PRT system. They have nothing to lose and a tremendous amount to gain in the conversion of the automobile into a regulated utility that they control. There are hundreds of billions of dollars, now going to the automobile, that are up for grabs. The situation is somewhat like the mid-nineteenth century when the railroads were given right-of-ways as an incentive to lay track. A deal can be brokered, trading access to the space above the highway system in return for guarantees to build a system and appropriate governmental regulation. The utilities are powerful in their own right and able to hold their own against the entrenched highway interest. They are accustomed to issues surrounding public right-of-ways and well schooled in methods of getting research funding out of the government. While the Department of Transportation has been unresponsive to PRT for decades, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency may be more helpful in the end.

A PRT system, designed to displace the automobile, will have rather tight design parameters. It will need to fit and operate above the existing city streets. This dictates a small profile with a turning radius of the standard automobile. Like the automobile, it will stop many places, needing numerous off-line stations that can tuck into the existing city scape. Automobiles are driven from any place to any place in the road system, travel decisions being controlled by the driver rather than a central agency. Auto travel is partially controlled by speed limits, rules of the road and conditions. In the PRT system, the rider decides where and were to go with the car's computer acting as chauffeur. As in the road system, the computer's options are constrained by traffic conditions and rules of the system. Like the road system, there will be expressways for fast travel and slower gateways for various other functions and conditions.

This is not hard stuff. We are a technical culture that can arrange for a space probe to fly near a moon of Jupiter. We can also put a couple of passengers in a car and use electric motors to carry them along a guideway. We can do this conveniently, safely, and in multiples of millions by applying existing and rather mundane technology.

Jon Bogle can be reached at Box 147, Lycoming College, Williamsburg, PA 17701

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Last modified: May 4, 1997