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Keeping up to speed with transportation changes: 3 lessons learned at PodCar City

January 03, 2018

Autonomous vehicles are changing the way we look at everything, but it’s important to keep an open mind as we move forward in 2018

In November, Las Vegas hosted PodCar City 2017, sponsored by the International Institute of Sustainable Transportation. As we head into 2018 and another year in the changing face of transportation, it’s a great opportunity to review the 11th annual conference of advanced transportation professionals and enthusiasts. Topics included Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), autonomous vehicles (AV), sustainable development, and government regulation.

For much of the conference’s history, it has been the meeting place of dedicated PRT proponents. Some of these experts are the pioneers that helped develop the notable Morgantown PRT system in West Virginia or worked to craft the American Society of Civil Engineer’s Automated People Mover standard. It was fascinating to hear them speak of advances in the technology and propose new use-cases for PRT networks. Examples include Skytran’s suspended PRT design that employs magnetic levitation and propels pods at speeds up to 200 mph. Or Transit Control Solutions’ vehicle-control software that optimizes routing to increase system capacity and therefore, economic value. The only problem is these advanced concepts only exist in scale models or computer simulations, but hopefully that will soon change.

Self-driving shuttles are showing up in communities across the globe. What’s the next step?

While a strong cohort of supporters stay dedicated to advancing PRT systems, others are starting to change course. The Jacksonville Skyway, operated by the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA), is a 2.5-mile-long automated monorail that opened in 1989. After an expansion in the late ’90s, the system has realized less-than-impressive ridership. This is no fault of the system itself. An exodus of businesses from the downtown area in the last decade has made ridership a challenge. JTA’s latest proposition is to modify the track to accept rubber-tired, automated vehicles that can enter/exit the guideway at grade. Adding the flexibility of shared, automated shuttles and investing in downtown community/business development might revitalize this pioneering transit system.

This year’s PodCar City conference brought out the largest showing yet of automated vehicle manufacturers and systems consultants, and it seemed to leave some PRT aficionados with the sense of being overlooked. This observation along with general trend tracking has led me to a few conclusions. As transportation designers, engineers, and project managers, I think it is important to keep the following in mind:

Do not fall in love with a technology or methodology

Yes, connected and automated vehicles will surely upend transportation as we know but there is still a use for fixed-rail, PRT, or for the time-being, good old-fashioned privately-owned vehicles. Cramming new technology where it should not be could end up wasting time and money. Evaluating the characteristics of a site or region is still paramount even in the age of “an AV will solve that.”

It will take a variety of tools to solve our biggest transportation problems

When it is time to deploy a system, keep in mind it could take a variety of tools; we need to think holistically. Technology has made it possible to design transportation systems that operate in the air, underground, and in between. Operators can be public, private, or some combination. Nothing is off limits and creativity in system design, financing, and policy implementation will win.

Think long-term

We are in the honeymoon phase with many advanced transit systems. Cities, operators, and the private sector are eager to show off their testbeds and pilot programs. It is never too soon to start talking about what’s next. Where do we go after a pilot? How will it be financed? How do we even evaluate the success of a pilot or the feasibility of a commercial deployment? Doing the research to understand long-term possibilities is crucial to installing a useful advanced transit system.

Overall, PodCar City 2017 was a success based on the international turnout, from university students to retired federal government employees, and the enlightening presentations. Advanced transit networks show much promise to promote environmental sustainability, social equity, and economic vitality. I’m excited to see what advances will happen in 2018 and what the next conference brings.

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