- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2008

ITHACA, N.Y. | The thought of a driverless, computer-guided car transporting people where they want to go on demand is a futuristic notion to some.

To Jacob Roberts, podcars - or PRTs, for personal rapid transit - represent an important component in the here-and-now of transportation.

“It’s time we design cities for the human, not for the automobile,” said Mr. Roberts, president of Connect Ithaca, a group of planning and building professionals, activists and students committed to making this upstate New York college town the first podcar community in the U.S.

With the oil crisis reaching a zenith and federal lawmakers ready to begin fashioning a new national transportation bill for 2010, Mr. Roberts and his colleagues think the future is now for podcars - electric, automated, lightweight vehicles that ride on their own network separate from other traffic.

Unlike mass transit, podcars carry two to 10 passengers, giving travelers the freedom and privacy of their own car while reducing the use of fossil fuels, reducing traffic congestion and freeing up space now monopolized by parking.

At stations located every block or every half-mile, depending on the need, a rider enters a destination on a computerized pad, and a car would take the person nonstop to the location. Stations would have slanted pull-in bays so that some cars could stop for passengers, while others could continue unimpeded on the main course.

“It works almost like an elevator, but horizontally,” said Mr. Roberts, adding podcar travel would be safer than automobile travel.

The podcar is not new. A limited version with larger cars carrying up to 15 passengers was built in 1975 in Morgantown, W.Va., and still transports West Virginia University students.

Next year, Heathrow Airport outside London will unveil a pilot podcar system to ferry air travelers on the ground. Companies in Sweden, Poland and Korea are operating full-scale test tracks to demonstrate the feasibility.

Designers are planning a podcar network for Masdar City, outside Abu Dhabi, which is being built as the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste city.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen cities in Sweden are planning podcar systems as part of the country’s commitment to be fossil-fuel-free by 2020, said Hans Lindqvist, a councilman from Varmdo, Sweden, and chairman of Kompass, an association of groups and municipalities behind the Swedish initiative.

Cars have dominated the cityscape for nearly a century, taking up valuable space while polluting the air, said Magnus Hunhammar, chief executive officer of the Stockholm-based Institute for Sustainable Transportation, the world’s leading center on podcar technology.

“Something has to change,” he said. “We aren’t talking about replacing the automobile entirely. We are adding something else into the transportation strategy.”

Skeptics question whether podcars can be more than a novelty mode of transportation, suitable only for limited-area operations, such as airports, colleges and corporate campuses.

Detractors, mainly light-rail advocates, say a podcar system would be too complex and expensive.

“It is operationally and economically unfeasible,” said Vukan Vuchic, a professor of transportation and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, who has written several books on urban transportation.

Podcars typically run on an elevated guideway or rails, but they also can run at street level. As a starting point, pilot podcar networks can be built along existing infrastructure, supporters say.

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