PRT or PBT?

If you read a lot of urbanist blogs, you start noticing that commenters (thanks anyway, Firefox spell-check, but I will not call them commentators) often fall into certain categories.  There are the Philosopher-Trolls, who never miss an opportunity to re-kindle the Eternal Questions of the transportation world (on-street or separated bike facilities?  why does transit cost so much in the USA?).  There are the Trainspotters, who never miss an opportunity to point out the voltage difference between the Siemens A32B77 car and the Bombardier 7B2R6 car.

And then there are the PRTers, who pop up seemingly at random to preach the mystical transcendent qualities of Personal Rapid Transit, which apparently pays you to build it and will leave your teeth sparkling clean.  On a Market Urbanism post about elevated rail, which I guess is a primitive precursor to PRT?, a commenter linked to a summary of a conference held by MnDOT last summer on that maligned form of futurism, PRT.

I think Tom Sorel has done a good job at MnDOT, and he’s probably done more than any other commissioner to advance multi-modal thinking and spur innovation.  But I have to say I was a little disappointed that we’re still studying PRT in Minnesota.  Rep.  Frank Hornstein made the point at the conference, expressing his concern that “PRT has been under discussion since the 1970s, but most plans have been shelved.”  There’s a little more to the story:  not only did PRT fail to justify construction after all that study, but PRT helped kill rail transit:

In 1972 the MTC [Metro Transit Commission, which was later swallowed by the Met Council and the last word dropped] undertook an analysis of the metro area’s transit needs, called the Regional Fixed Guideway Study. The study recommended that UMTA [I'm not sure about this acronym - Urban Mass Transit Administration maybe?] and the state Legislature come up with $1.3 billion to build a 57-mile intermediate capacity rail system. “It was sort of the Twin Cities answer to the BART,” Metropolitan Council transportation director Larry Dallam says, so the council refused to look at MTC’s study and did its own, which concluded that a fixed guideway for buses was the solution to downtown congestion. The LEgislature promptly shelved both recommendations, did nothing for a year, then appropriated $500,000 so that the MTC could study the only form of transport that hadn’t been discussed: small, driverless, electrically powered vehicles called people movers.

Despite the bad blood (or maybe because of it), the summary of last summer’s PRT conference is a good read.  Apparently MnDOT held the conference after getting 21 responses to an RFI (Request For Information, something Carol Molnau would never have done) about PRT, including proposals to build systems in various Twin Cities suburbs and from Winona, which is applying for federal money to build a “PRT lab and partnership center” that would “integrate a test track into current city infrastructure.”

But unfortunately the conferees agreed on a defeatist attitude about transit in the suburbs.  Steve Elkins, a city councilmember from Bloomington led the charge, with the unsupported assertion that transit service “cannot be a faster option for suburban commuters.”  Well, transit is faster, of course, at rush hour on commuter bus rides that have shoulder lanes.  CM Elkins makes clear later that he is actually talking about local routes on the Bloomington Strip, which is currently served by a tangled mess of buses:

The important thing to note about the Bloomington Strip is that it  isn’t more than a half-mile wide in most places, making it actually pretty walkable.  So when Barb Thoman, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities, describes the area as “too hostile and dangerous for people to get from one place to another,” it is true, but only because the cities have built it to be that way.

Last year I had a training in an office park on the Strip, and at lunch I went to find a scenic spot to munch at.  Hailing from this part of town, I knew that Centennial Lakes and its corporate landscaped grandeur wasn’t far, so I set out to hoof on over.  Needless to say, after several speeding turn lane near-misses and a few Amazing Disappearing Sidewalks, I was pretty frustrated.  But the worst was when I was late getting back, after the confusion of too many T intersections and random sidewalk turns led me on an unnecessary detour.  Yet the spot I found wasn’t any further than my normal lunch spot.  All it would take is a little road dieting (this area is loaded with low-volume four-lane streets), a policy of sidewalks for both sides, and some way-finding and it would be a pretty nice place to walk.

The Bloomington Strip, composed of superblock after superblock of low-slung buildings surrounded by empty lawns or parking lots, is actually an excellent testing ground for the Fused Grid.  Here is one I whipped up with almost no thought:

The orange lines are pedestrian or bicycle ways (ideally both), creating a grid system similar in size, if not regularity, to a standard city grid.  With some decent signage (to Progress Drive, for example, or No Through Walk, for another) it would be a fine place to walk.  With some infill of buildings on these vast parking lot fields, it would be a nice place to walk.

Do we really need a network of elevated monorails to take us from exactly where we are to exactly where we want to be?  I don’t think so, not as long as we can still use our old familiar Personal Biped Transit.