Emerging innovative transport systems: a sceptical view

As the 20th century progressed down the road towards delivering people’s aspiration for ever-improving levels of motorised mobility, so too did identification of a range of problems that come in its wake. Not least of these was the fact that the three pre-requisites of optional car use — adequate age, income and of course ability to pass the driving test — could never be met by the majority of the population. Sadly, this was not acknowledged as sufficient justification for not attempting to maximise the number of people who could benefit.

In any case, it soon became apparent that there are limits to the number of adults who can travel further and faster when they wish, and to do so in the type of comfort, personal environment and relative safety that the car makes possible. It was seen that, other than in the very small number of new settlements that could be largely planned for its unrestricted use, other ways would need to be found to fulfil this aspiration.

This realisation has led to research into and developments of other motorised transport systems the role of which is no longer, as in the past, simply to provide a reasonable public service for those without access to a car. It is aimed at improving on the car’s characteristics, the intention being to attract people out of their cars. The longer the journey that has to be made, the easier it is for high speed rail to offer that alternative. But far more of the transport problem is urban in origin. It stems from the multiplication of the more common journeys that people choose to make in their daily lives which require covering relatively short distances and which contribute disproportionately to congestion, danger and pollution.

It is against this background that recent ‘brochure-attractive’ developments, in the form of Personal Rapid Transit (typically 2-person), Group Rapid Transit (typically 8-person) — both consisting of computer-controlled automated vehicles running on elevated guideways — and Dualmode Transportation Systems which can also run at street level, have been proposed in recent years. Their proponents believe that these systems could play a major role in providing a high level of motorised mobility without the penalties that mass car use incurs.

Their origin appears to lie in the simplistic notions first, that there can be the prospect of transferring onto them a significant proportion of journeys currently made by car and that, second, from an environmental and ecological perspective, as they are ‘public transport, they are unquestionably ‘good’. This is highly misleading for a number of reasons.

  1. A realistic matching of the door-to-door convenience and comfort of the car is not often possible. In common with public transport generally, these systems tend to have a linear form that does not fit locations either of high population density or of low density with its dispersed patterns of points of arrival and departure that the car has so singularly encouraged. Their application would be limited to areas entailing some walk to the ‘station’, a wait for the vehicle, and then some walk to the destination. Just considering the element of travel time, speeds in them would have to be very high to begin to compete with the car.
  2. All the systems are costly to develop and put in place for public use. Not only does their construction depend on public subsidy but also the fares to ride on them. But why should these funds be used to lower the costs of travel on them? Is the explanationthat, without subsidy, people would otherwise use their car? If so, it does not stand up to scrutiny: much recent evidence from the UK and the US of new high quality public transport systems reveals that, in the main, only a low proportion of their riders are people who had previously made the equivalent journey by car.
  3. There can be no assurance that technology will be able to ensure a totally reliable service when it is called upon to cover ‘thousands of vehicles and hundreds of stations’. But even a slight failure or breakdown in the system would severely disrupt a large number of people’s lives. Associated with this too is the problem of vandalism as the vehicles and stations will open up widespread opportunities for people with a grudge against society which can find its outlet in damage that is costly to rectify. Considerable surveillance would be needed to minimise this risk.
  4. There is the issue of visual intrusion as all the systems require an infrastructure elevated to clear high vehicles travelling at road level. Their proponents describe the prospective ride on them in the vehicles to be used as ‘view-rich’. It seems unlikely that this would be a description that would be selected by those living or working in buildings facing them.
  5. Lifts or escalators to take passengers up to and down from the ‘stations’ would not be a viable proposition as they would be too costly. Those with difficulty in getting around and climbing long flights of steps at either end of their journey — and on the return journey — would therefore be precluded from using the systems.
  6. As with improved road capacity to meet the predicted increase in demand for private transport use, high quality systems would encourage the adoption of longer and therefore more energy-intensive patterns of activity. The consequences of this need to be considered in relation to climate change. It is now becoming widely recognised that, to combat climate change, dramatic reductions in our use of fossil fuels must be made. Whilst the proponents of these systems would no doubt argue that as they would run directly on electricity or indirectly on it from batteries, renewable energy or nuclear sources could be used. This is regrettably an unrealistic scenario since it is inconceivable that, even with a vast programme of construction, such a solution could be on offer within the relatively short time scale foreseen for these systems being operational.

Unless these fairly wide-ranging concerns about such systems can be adequately allayed, there would appear to be insufficient justification for supporting further development of these innovative and otherwise exciting solutions to the urban transport crisis.

Published in World Transport Policy and Practice Vol.7, No.4, 2001.

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