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

Sunday, September 18, 2011

His PRT is made of straw

Ah. You know Personal Rapid Transit is having a good week whenever a loud NNNNNNNNNNGGGGG sound comes from the direction of Minnesota. That's the sound Ken Avidor gets whenever he starts up the totally analog, hand-cranked calculating machine on which he hammers out his PRT Moondoggie blog attacks against anything resembling transit technology innovation. And here it is now:

Saturday, September 17, 2011
ULTra's Glorified Golf Carts at Heathrow Not "Faster, Better, Cheaper"

For many years, I've had to listen to the PRTistas claim Personal Rapid Transit was "faster, better cheaper" compared to conventional modes of transit. The so-called Heathrow PRT project was supposed to be the proof of those claims... [sic] and it has failed miserably.
NNNNNNNNNNGGGGG. The core of this offal is taken from the same tired, old, made-up talking points as always* -- so instead of another dissection, this time I want to make some observations about Avidor's strategic direction. Let's turn to our debunking friend who's fun to be with, Mr. Side-By-Side Comparison:
Ken Avidor blog/claim Fact check
After many years, delays and enormous piles of hype, the pods of Heathrow are now "officially unveiled"(Reuters):
Traveling at speeds up to 40 km/hour (25 mph), after an average wait of just 34 seconds, the system looks like something straight from a science fiction film.
25 mph? Not exactly "rapid". And the 34 second wait? That pretty much dooms their oft-repeated claim that you never have to wait for PRT. Also, a 34 second wait eliminates the possibility that PRT could operate at "nano-second headways" in order to match the capacity of conventional transit. With those pathetic stats, the ULTra pods cannot be seriously considered a viable transit mode for urban areas.
The first PRT study for Heathrow was in 2004, and the go-ahead was given almost exactly 6 years ago. Six years from greenlight, through design, planning, construction, manufacturing, and testing is not a long time for a major civil engineering project that includes the first of a kind product.

25 mph is plenty fast when the vehicle doesn't have to stop until its destination; that speed is close to average speed.

As a comparison, when the Hiawatha Light Rail line opened in Minneapolis, its scheduled speed was 21 mph.**

Also, no respectable PRT designer says there will be no waiting -- they say 'little or no waiting,' or 'on-demand or brief waiting.'

In ULTra, the control system is synchronous, meaning pods are inserted into virtual 'slots' that circulate around the guideway network. Each slot is as long as the minimum interval allowed between pods.

What this means is that there is room for roughly 113 slots on the network's 2.36 miles of guideway. There are currently 21 pods, so the system has plenty of unused capacity, which if needed would be met by adding more pods.

The current ULTra ridership record is 164 trips in an hour using 18 pods, or a capacity of 656 people moving among the 3 stations. The designed capacity is 500,000 riders per year for this phase. Guideway, pods and riders served will increase should the system expand to the rest of Heathrow.

According to ULTra, the company behind the technology, the 30 million pound ($47 million) development could transport up to 500,000 passengers each year and replace 50,000 shuttle bus journeys.
... The cost of the Heathrow pod project proves that the infrastructure is expensive to build. There are no real-life figures on what it will cost to operate and maintain the pods of Heathrow for a year.
Waaaaait. One of the things Ken is supposed to be showing is that PRT is not "cheaper."

$47 million is a lot, but no one ever said PRT would be dirt cheap. Just calling PRT expensive doesn't prove it's not cheaper. To do that he has to compare it to something else. Which he does not do.

But I can. Heathrow ULTra is 47/2.36=$19.9 million per mile.  Light rail in the U.S. averages "about $35 million per mile."
There is a control room and presumably people who have to monitor the pods. How much that all costs - 3 or 4 million dollars a year for a simple two mile stretch, it's certainly not "cheaper" than taxis or jitneys. He just pulls "3 or 4 million" out of his butt. But even if Ken's in the ballpark, doesn't that money represent money for jobs rather than hardware?

Taxis and jitneys burn fuel, Ken. And each one requires a driver -- presumably not working on a volunteer basis. What's the economy in Avidor's universe based on?
It could be argued that the Heathrow pod "system" is not a true PRT system at all. It has a heavy "bi-directional guideway" that would not fit on the average city street. The Heathrow pod system do not have the elevated stations that are pictured in countless visuals on the web- for example, the enormous, hideous station festooned with advertisements on this webpage. The Heathrow pods have rubber tires and do not circulate like taxis, but instead must be berthed separately so they can charge their batteries. The pods must also back out of their berths - requiring plenty of room. Sure, you could argue it. But if someone argues that something they oppose isn't a "true" example of that something, it's usually a sign they know they can't win the argument. Ken is defining ULTra as not-PRT in order to be able to continue to claim PRT doesn't exist and is unproven.

And for the record, "bi-directional guideway" (2 guideway, one for each direction, on the same support posts) is used at Heathrow where it does fit, and because it would be stupid to go around the end of the runway by more than one route.

That last Ken Klaim™ is what I want to focus on. As I noted, he's trying to parse ULTra, basically nitpicking it. He's hoping the casual reader will take his ULTra-as-outlier argument at face value.

This is the approach he has taken for years when opposing ULTra. Sure, it looks like a car on something resembling a footbridge. Compared to the even-more-futuristic designs of Taxi 2000 and PRT International (which Ken is more familiar with because they are being developed in Minnesota), ULTra looks downright present-day.

Which is the problem for Ken . Because looking present-day, existing and functioning translates into feasibility. Which makes a joke (appropriately enough) out of Ken's Number One Talking Point: "Personal Rapid Transit is an infeasible transportation concept."

Keeping PRT looking infeasible is why Ken Avidor continues to panic-bash the Heathrow transit-pod project. Heathrow is shaping up as the smiling, telegenic poster child for feasibility.

 But don't take my word for it. Let's compare ULTra to the official definition of PRT by the Advanced Transit Association:
ATRA sez: ULTra?
Personal Rapid Transit has all of the following characteristics:
• Direct origin-to-destination service with no need to transfer or stop at intermediate stations. Check.
• Small vehicles available for the exclusive use of an individual or small group traveling together by choice. Check!
• Service available on demand by the user rather than on fixed schedules. Check-a-roony.
• Fully automated vehicles (no human drivers) which can be available for use 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. ULTra is fully automated, but -- Oops! ULTra is only available 20-22 hours a day, depending on day of the week :( But this is more hours than the Heathrow Express train from London (no service 11:30pm - 5am). So we'll call this one... 'Chec.'
• Vehicles captive to a guideway that is reserved for their exclusive use. There are no off-ramps from the guideway, so Check!
• Small (narrow and light) guideways, usually elevated but also can be at or near ground level or underground. Check, check and check!
• Vehicles able to use all guideways and stations on a fully connected PRT network. Check!
Note that these bullets define characteristics of service and safety only. PRT is technology independent, and manufacturers are free to use any technology they choose.

Note that last thing: "PRT is technology independent, and manufacturers are free to use any technology they choose." All this Avi-steria -- about FROG, little rubber tires, kinds of guideway and stations, everything -- is just a lot of smoke.

He's saying Don't use ATRA's definition of PRT to evaluate ULTra, use MY definition.  What is known as a straw man.

ULTra is Personal Rapid Transit. ULTra works. Which is more than you can say about Ken Avidor's arguments.

gPRT Big Bad Wolfidor


* The following links debunk other Talking Points appearing in Ken's post:
ULTra does not use FROG-brand navigation
2getthere née FROG still exists, it was the old parent company that went bankrupt.
• Michele Bachmann: one of 5 Republicans and 13 Democrats authoring PRT-related legislation in the Minnesota Senate session in question. Her bill was insignificant.
• Vukan Vuchic says the automobile is a necessary part of "modern transportation," and lumps it in with buses and rail. In other words, the automobile-centric status quo.

** A news item reported by Light Rail Now, so it must be true.

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