Fact-Checking the "PRT Boondoggle" Blog
A project of the PRT NewsCenter

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Advocacy Does Not Equal Decisionmaking III- everyone needs to calm down

RDC, a rather articulate commentator, is in understandable high dudgeon over at his Laurels and Lances blog about PR put out by the people at SkyTran PRT:

Wild and unsubstantiated claims on the SkyTran website such as SkyTran being able to "totally eliminate commuter congestion in any city" is literally false advertising and a complete misrepresentation of the product. Another claim of "SkyTran can END road congestion, car accidents and automobile air pollution" also state the impossible.

Where are the actual studies proving these claims?...

Short answer: their aren't any studies I know of proving these particular claims. I agree they are overblown. However, if he is so inclined I can direct RDC to a number of studies from over the years describing what PRT can do in more dispassionate and academic terms.

Furthermore, the glaring faults RDC sees in SkyTran's claims are pretty much right on, such as--
Another claim from the makers of SkyTran is that people will be traveling around at 100 mph around the city. If you sent someone in one of the passenger pods for a 4 block ride, you would not get it to 100 mph. If you did, that person would be thrown back and whipped forward as there is insufficient space for speeding up and slowing down safely. You also would have hundreds of switches and sensors along the line to allow the PRT pod to bypass stations and other pods. One tiny error in any of the millions upon millions of calculations per second the system must do or a small system glitch, as the driverless pod is whipping around the city at 100 mph, could easily spell disaster.
Absolutely, which is why all other PRT designers I know of propose 25-40 mph speeds in town, reserving higher velocities for the day when PRT lines might extend between cities. Allow me to note that these kinds of pro-PRT claims are exactly the kind of over-promising I have spent a great deal of time counseling against. It is the mirror of those who claim PRT is 'a scam,' 'light rail is all we need,' and 'mass transit doesn't work, just build more roads.' Over-promising what PRT could do creates resistance among people who ought to support PRT, people who are sincerely seeking alternatives to the car culture and unsustainable environmental practices.

Claims by overly enthusiastic advocates should not be generalized to all of the PRT designers and proponents (nor should their enthusiasm mean their technology doesn't work). A review of the serious literature will reveal the rigorous academic nature of the data that supports PRT.

On the other hand, the point that SkyTran is at right now amounts merely to discussion about its potential merits. It is an overreaction at this stage to characterize it as the first step in an evil ripoff of taxpayers, for the two simple reasons that it is just people talking, and (all together) advocacy does not equal decisionmaking.

There are hoops any new public transit technology has to jump through to be selected for implementation: protracted, deliberative, multi-lateral study and decisionmaking that protects the public interest. Hardware has to be built, tested and operated to the satisfaction of regulators (as is being done in Europe). Pilot systems must be established and operated to the satisfaction of politically accountable officials, if not voters themselves, before a decision is made to proceed. Likewise with design & engineering for actual urban implementations, and the public and/or private revenue sources to pay for it.

PRT proponents need to bear this process in mind, as well as the detractors. Public officials, on the whole, are slow to embrace PRT because of this obligation to protect the public interest, not because of less flattering traits some people may like to speculate about.

Optimally, R&D on PRT would be funded privately, as with the Vectus system, although even with public investment in planning and testing, as is the case with the British/EU ULTra PRT, there is no need to think that would take funding away from existing transport systems. Competitive grants awarded on merit, budgeted/appropriated for the purpose, are available from national and state agencies, and private foundations.

If SkyTran is all that it claims, where is the test line on company property to clearly show everyone the concept in a full scale working model?
asks RDC. I can't speak for that particular company, but that would require sufficient investment, and that would require investors to see it as an acceptable risk. Maybe you haven't noticed, but public transit does not exactly have a low threshold for entry into the market: vast manufacturing capacity in materials, facilities and labor are required (in the past, deep pockets such as Raytheon--who nonetheless mucked up PRT2000--and the two megacorps involved in Cabinentaxi--a proven design that fell victim to military spending demands of Pres. Reagan). And there are the above-mentioned regulatory and policy hoops. In addition, in my state (probably others too) there are laws protecting public transit agencies from private competition.

By its very nature, advocacy is one-sided and seeks advantageous comparisons with the status quo.* This can be said of any innovation. If a particular invention doesn't pan out, then we won't buy any. But it also doesn't mean innovators will stop trying, nor should anyone tell them to stop.

on the Web: Laurels and Lances

Ken Avidor, a deer, a female deer
* This is frequently characterized as "bashing," especially if the comparisons are not objectively framed. Heated comparisons (I've read things on the order of 'light rail is a failure' and 'a waste of money') are not helpful, because viewed from the decisionmakers' perspective conventional transit is a good decision -- they function; construction and operation creates jobs and follow-on ripple effects in the economy; there are land use/redevelopment benefits; a significant segment of the public also sees in transit desirable social outcomes. Now, it is still much-debated whether conventional transit achieves prevailing expectations, the magnitude of economic benefits justify the investment, and whether transit-driven development is fair to underserved areas. But those are complex public issues (and in the case of social outcomes, not all variables in the decision are quantitative), transit innovators would do well to exercise caution and restraint when weighing in on them. And, moreover, the PRT community's rhetoric needs to acknowledge not only that new conventional systems are being built, but also that those systems will continue to exist into the future. Responsible PRT deployment proposals need to describe how they will interact in a multi-modal transit landscape, as we have done at GetThereFast.org

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