Thought Experiment: Why Not Experiment?

Post by Steven Dale

Image by flickr user Gary Huston.

A thought experiment:

Imagine if we created financial incentives for people to experiment professionally with transit?

For example: What if, for a transit agency to receive federal/state/provincial funding they had to dedicate at least 5% of their total annual budget to research and development?

How would that change things?

My recent flaying at the hands of the PRT community got me thinking about this. While I may disagree with the logic of PRT, but I’m pleased the industry continues with their somewhat quixotic quest. Their dedication to an ideal and their perseverance to doggedly pursue it is admirable.

The fundamental beauty of what the PRT community represents is a willingness to experiment and take risks. Whatever your position on PRT, you have to admit, these are a group of people with guts.

Generally speaking, transit doesn’t have those guts. And maybe it needs it.

In the last 100 years, we’ve basically seen no risk-taking and innovation limited risk-taking and innovation in transit and we’ve been left with the results of that neglect. Sure there’s been the occasional BRT or LRT, but those are just standard technologies put in their own rights-of-way. Most innovations have come in things like ticketing and fares.

Don’t even get me started on monorails.

We need a culture of transit that privileges – nay, expects – experimentation, innovation and invention because the status quo just isn’t working too well anymore. That doesn’t mean taking reckless risks, especially when it may endanger people’s lives, but it does mean we can’t change things for the better using the same techniques that got us to where we currently are.

We may laugh at things like the Chinese Tunnel Bus™ but what if it actually works?

Yes research, development and experimentation is expensive and the fruits of it somewhat elusive. But it is something that successful companies (whether public or otherwise) commit to. There’s a reason things like auto show concept cars and haute couture fashion exist.

Maybe no one’s ever going to wear a dress made of meat or drive a shape-shifting sports car, but the ideas and discussions those things provoke go on to challenge and influence our preconceived notions of the world around us. They inspire us to dream a little higher and a little better.

When was the last time we saw a high concept tram? A bus made of paper? A flying subway? All ridiculous, of course. But that’s partly the point.

There’s a reason PRT continues to hang around: It inspires us to imagine public transit better than what it currently is.

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  1. It may make me look stupid, but I always thought the perfect technology for realising PRT is aerial gondolas. If the grips on the gondolas can change from one cable to another cable then they could navigate an extensive network of aerial cables, but then again with zero wait I can't see why getting out of one cabin to get into another cabin on a different traditional aerial gondola would be any more of a problem.
  2. "In the last 100 years, we’ve basically seen no risk-taking and innovation in transit and we’ve been left with the results of that neglect. Sure there’s been the occasional BRT or LRT, but those are just standard technologies put in their own rights-of-way." Not true. There's been a lot of innovation in technology, scheduling, fare collection, etc. etc. In many instances, the transit sector pioneered technologies over others (c.f. hybrid buses, electric buses vs hybrid, electric cars). The innovation may not be so visible, and a lot of it didn't happen in North America, but it is there.
  3. @ matt In the back of my mind I've always wondered if this was somehow possible. Whenever I've described PRT to someone, there's inevitably a reference to gondolas - it's the first thing people think about when they think of small cabins. @ anton You're right in that there has been plenty of incremental technological developments that happened in the transit sector, but I'm thinking Steven is talking more about transformational developments. The monorail would count, as would the diesel bus, but I'd say automated fare collection would not. One thing that just occurred to me is that maybe this needs to be addressed at a much smaller level - toys. It is very easy to build a car or bus with a set of Legos or other build systems, but harder to put together tracks or cables. Could someone build a toyset that made it easier to experiment with transit? Actually, with rapid prototyping and 3D printing, it would be pretty easy to print parts if someone were to load designs on to www.thingiverse.com. I'm not the one to do it, but I would love to play.
  4. You do see innovations in public transit. In the 1980's, San Diego took money that was originally supposed to be used for a discontinued freeway project and used that to buy up the rights to a railway line that was being abandoned. On the old railway line between downtown SD and Tijuana, they built the San Diego Trolley. Because of the success of that project, this country has had boom in the past 30 years of building light rail projects. Portland looking at the effects of legacy streetcars in San Francisco, and New Orleans, Portland built one of the first modern streetcars systems. Because of the success of the Portland Streetcar system, lots of other cities are proposing similiar streetcar projects (Los Angeles, Seattle). Curitiba Brazil, built out the first modern bus rapid transit system. Based upon the success of that program other cities like Brisbane, Calgary, Cleveland and Los Angeles built successful BRT routes. In the 1970's Davis California committed itself to building out a bike network. Because of the success of biking programs in Davis, and similiar programs in Europe, Portland currently is rapidly expanding its bike network. We have seen bike sharing programs in New York City, Chicago, Montreal and Denver. Mass Transit projects are large capital intensive projects with large lead times. As a result it takes a while for ideas to move from one city to the next. While so far there aren't a tremendous number of Gondolas in this country, that doesn't mean that there is no experimentation in this area. Manhattan has a legacy system that has recently been refurbished. Portland built a system to connect a medical campus to the rest of the city. But it takes a while for cities to learn from one another and to figure out which places a technology like gondolas are the most appropriate solution. My hunch is that they will probably have the most success in cities with hills. I would be looking at the places that had legacy inclines, like Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. In South America, cities with hills were those were the cities that had the most success. I also think they probably would be a good idea anywhere you needed to get over water, like crossing rivers. The marginal cost of creating special bridges for rail or a bus is really expensive, but for a Gondola, I think that isn't as much of an incremental expense. Lastly I have some hope for using Gondolas to cross across sprawl. Streetcars and bus lines seem to do best on long straight streets. But a gondola can just go above long curvilinear streets. But I don't know if Nimbyism would stop it. But I think right now the biggest thing holding back Gondolas is lack of familiarity followed by a lack of knowledge of where they are the most appropriate technology.
  5. What 'transformational developments' have cars gone through? Is the creation of bike sharing systems (a la bixi) an incremental development? I think there is no lack of ideas and technology, just a lack of political will and money to implement them.
  6. @ ant6n, I think my rhetoric got a bit out ahead of me. I've changed the post to reflect that.
  7. @ ant6n, "I think there is no lack of ideas and technology, just a lack of political will and money to implement them." This is why I suggested something like the 5% r&d quota. Right now the ideas typically come from outside the establishment. The question is how to get the ideas to come from inside the establishment. As for Bixi, I have little knowledge about the program. What I would ask is this: Is it typically used by commuters or tourists?
  8. @matt: With detachable grips, gondolas can already come off the cable to a rail in the station. There must already be switching mechanisms in stations that allow gondolas to be taken "offline" and put into storage. So all the technology for switching between lines already exist. I suspect currently it's all manual and some gondola "jockey" has to push it between switches to take it offline. So my "prediction" is that it will be some "third world" country that will adopt manual switching first. Occupants simply indicate which line they want to go go next and the gondola jockey manually pushes the gondola onto the right line. While there may be LT1M waits, it is still a hassle to gather your things and switch to the next gondola.
  9. Mass transit projects in most individual cities still aren't big enough where if you took 5% off the top, that you would be able to fund something like a gondola. If you took 5% of the money Tuscon received for streetcars on its most recent funding round or 5% of the money that Salt Lake City got for its most recent light rail project, that still isn't going to be enough to get a large capital intensive project like a gondola off the ground. Second what would really kill the technology is if the first couple of times it gets implemented in the wrong spot. If gondolas get introduced in areas where few people use them and as a result the cost benefit ratio of the projects seems bad, that will contribute to the meme that gondolas are just a technology for the third world. Now the threshold for success in mass transit projects is pretty low. All projects are expected to be subsidized by the government, so revenues don't need to cover costs. More recently the feds have been getting further and further away from cost benefit metrics. Streetcars have about the same capacity as a bus, travel at about the same speed as bus, but are dramatically more expensive to build out than a bus, yet the feds now are willing to subsidize these too. A project now gets funding based upon its story. Streetcars have proclaimed themselves as catalysts of development, so the federal funds are flowing. For Gondolas to be introduced, they need a good story more than anything else.
  10. @Steven Bixi (in Montreal) is used to some extend by commuters, tourists seem to like it, too. But I think it works best for short trips all throughout the day. Bike sharing can be problematic if used for commuting in mono-functional cities -- it works much better if the flow of trips is not just in one general direction. see http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2010/08/18/can-bike-sharing-work-in-cities-with-monofunctional-job-centers/ for a more thorough analysis of the issue. I still think there's been a lot of innovation in the last 100 years in public transit, more than with cars. And bixi is something that I'd call an almost completely new form of transportation. Sure it's just a bike, but the way you can hop on and hop off, with no ownership and maintenance etc. requirement, it creates a completely new mobility experience. It extends your ability to walk.
  11. @ Sam Wong, The manual transfer between cables idea is actually really interesting. In a developing economy it would be crazy easy to implement. A 'route planner card' which indicates the preferred transfers en route would be easy to create for each trip and place in the window. An attendant could simply glance at the card on each gondola, and decide where to send someone next. Lo-tech PRT using human labour and dirt cheap mechanical systems. I could see these all over India, Africa, South America quite quickly. Expanding the system would require simply building a new station and stringing a line - well, that and expanding nearby stations to take new cables, and handle increased waiting queues and transfer traffic. Theoretically, someone could have built one of these 60 years ago...
  12. @ Ed, re: 5% I'm not saying that 5% of a city's budget would be able to fund a gondola system. I'm talking very generally about what the implications would be if a transit agency dedicated a certain percentage of their revenue to dedicated R&D.
  13. @ ant6n, I think the question is similar to what Scott was getting at. Is it transformational or just incremental? The bike itself I would consider a transformational invention/innovation because it fundamentally altered how a large group of the world travelled. Bixi, I would suggest, is an incremental improvement on the bicycle. Again, I know very little about bike-sharing. I know there was a program in my hometown of Toronto that failed miserably. Why? I don't know. I think the big question I have about bike-sharing is this: Let's face it, bikes are cheap. Is there really a necessity for people share bikes? Car sharing I get, 100%, but bikes? For the tourist market it makes sense to me. I just don't understand it from a local commuter perspective. That doesn't mean I think it doesn't work, it just means I don't understand it.
  14. @ Scott and Sam, Everything you've said about line switching is theoretically correct. I even did a post a while back about the Sulphur Mountain gondola in Banff where vehicles are moved through the station by hand. That's totally doable. The problem, however, with switching comes from the issue of line tolerances. Vehicles need to be spaced along a line within certain tolerances. What happens when suddenly every user (for example) wants to switch onto the same line? Seems like an issue to me that requires an engineer to comment on - which I'm not :)
  15. @ Steven In my experience with Ve'lib, bicycle sharing serves both residents and tourists. Taking a bicycle on transit can be difficult, if it is even allowed, and storing the bicycle at a destination can cause more problems (lack of parking, risk of tires and seats being stolen). Bicycle rental systems solve those problems for residents and tourists. I used the Ve'lib system in Paris for a year as a local commuter, even though I owned my own bicycle. When I was going somewhere with a higher crime rate, I would take a Ve'lib, rather than risk my own bicycle seat getting stolen. It also was convenient to take to work when I knew that I would be meeting someone without a bicycle afterward, and end up traveling on the metro. Almost everyone I knew that lived in the city used Ve'lib at least occasionally, including people with bicycles. While it might make sense to make one trip in your day by transit (because of distance, time of day, time), bicycle sharing allows commuters to use bicycles for other trips.
  16. Hello friend ! Come and look at my website http://www.abcde-institute.org/urban_ropeways.html Go on the page down to "Future prospects" and have a look to the special page "How to make money wirh Urban ropeways". Perhaps You have an idea...? (I hope it is translated correct, I speak English very bad) Greetings from Austria Guenther
  17. @ Steven and Sam The engineering issues, particularly loading, are worries of mine as well. This is again why I'd like to try this out with construction toys sometime. Build it, run it, see where it breaks. Another issue would be logistics. I'm assuming that a given gondola would continue to be pushed out on it's journey until it reaches it's destination. At that point there would have to be some coordination in feeding gondolas back into the system. There would have to be some way to dynamically allocate empty gondolas to stations that need them, and route them back accordingly. Also, if engineering imposes a load limit on any given line or segment, that would have to be dynamically tracked, to prevent overloading or backlogs. Still. Really interesting.
  18. @Scott: I'm not sure I understand the concern on loading. Yes, gondola lines have minimum headways. Any switching mechanism, manual or automatic, would have to respect that and not overload a given line. Hi-tech PRTs also have a minimum headway as well, just a lot smaller (~3 s instead of ~30s) Likewise, hi-tech PRTs have to deal with dynamic routing of empty gondolas. A manual system would require some human controllers giving orders to individual stations where to route the empties. Fundamentally, a low tech gondola switching system is just a slower PRT with no headway issues (as the cable guarantees adjacent cars can't collide).
  19. @ Marielle, That all makes sense to me. So the basic concept behind bike-sharing is for the casual rider? My other concern is this: How extensive do the network of stations have to be to make it viable? Tied to that question is this: How do the bike-share companies manage to control inventory so that bottlenecks don't occur? How do companies ensure that there's always a bike available for people who want one at a certain given station and - conversely - how do they ensure there's always a "parking space" available?
  20. Through coach gondolas (or PRTs or APMs) are not a good idea for urban ropeway networks. At each crossing every third gondola is riding right or straight on or left. At the next crossing the same procedure, but it is now the ninth gondola, driving to my target destination, at the next crossing it is the 27th gondola (counted from my start destination). Either I have to wait to the correct 27th gondola or I must change the vehicle at each crossing. The better system is a network with x- and y-coordinates (North-South and West-East) and I have to change only one time to reach a diagonal seated station. ULTra PRTs with ist own tracks have a big problem if one full section (vehicles at 3 seconds distance) meets another full section. How will it works to mix only one vehicle (or more) into the full other section? Other problem: Rush hour, the small destination stop is full of vehicles, but I want to step out. The PRT is circling ( with all passengers) round the block like an airplane without landing permit? Or I must ride (with other passengers) to the next destination stop? Or my vehicle is waiting on the track and jams the queue of vehicles behind? All Automated People Mover (gondolas, PRTs) need a fixed time to spend it at a destination stop or they get a jam problem, I described it in-depth at my research project at the site http://www.abcde-institute.org/urban_ropeways_destination_stops.html
  21. @ Ed >>If gondolas get introduced in areas where few people use them and as a result the cost benefit ratio of the projects seems bad, that will contribute to the meme that gondolas are just a technology for the third world. (...) For Gondolas to be introduced, they need a good story more than anything else.<< The Metro-Cable of Medellín (Colombia) transports about 3,000 passengers a day or about 15 millions a year. They save 20.000 tons of CO2 a year and if you can trade CO2-allowances with 18,- Canadian.Dollar per ton CO2. you earn a crust of 360,000,-- EVERY YEAR... Together with ticket sales of 15 million passengers the investment amortized in months. Why you waste your money by trading stocks?
  22. Ed, look an listen this broadcast video: http://www.dw-world.de/dw/0,,14038,00.html
  23. correction: The Metro-Cable of Medellín (Colombia) transports about 30,000 ( ! ) passengers a day
  24. @ Sam, My concerns regarding loading were essentially an engineering concern. Are there problems with running an 'unbalanced' line - 10 cars going one way and none coming back, as an example. As I've said before, in principle this is entirely possible. Headways and distances between cars would be a concern again, as it is with any PRT type system, although as you said, a gondola attached to a cable has no chance of colliding with another one. The only risk of collision would be in station, where nothing should be moving fast enough to do real damage. @ Guenther A grid system would be a very logical choice for a system like this, but it may not be the best choice for every urban environment, particularly if development is spread among several nodes. An alternative would be to have several 'hub' stations at various places in the city, where a gondola could be taken from a local run line, placed on a shuttle line to the next hub, and then at that hub placed on another local run. In all likelihood, a mature system would be a mix of both, with grids serving orderly downtown areas, shuttles to the suburbs, and either a grid or a hub and spoke system at the other end. A grid system would look most like PRT though, and gains the advantage of multiple lines to increase capacity in any given direction. Also, a cable system could save even more power by only spinning up the drive motors when there are gondolas to travel on that section of line.
  25. @ Steven- I believe that there is a consensus that the station networks have to be fairly dense for the system to work. North American systems have been criticized for having too few or far-flung stations. I know that in Paris they have trucks that pick up bicycles and take them to empty stations at night. There is an app for finding out where parking is available, I believe. The Velib stations have small maps on them, so you can bicycle to another station if the parking is full. The system is far from perfect, but with stations only two or three blocks apart, it is not that big of a deal.
  26. In regards to the location of bicycle share I would argue that density is not the most important factor, but usefulness. Melbourne's scheme is particularly hopeless in this regard. They need to be near where people will actually use them. Riding in the Melbourne CBD wouldn't be high on anyone's wish list, but riding on the riverside paths would be. Then they should be near parks, zoos, museums, shops, train stations and tram stops. And they shouldn't be limited to just the central square kilometre or two, but have a useful coverage of all inner suburbs, and even then I could pick outer suburbs where bike share would still work. Bike share IS an adjunct of public transport, and it's thoughtful design is as critical of the rest of the transit system. Like all design there should be how to guides for the people new to the idea and for the incompetents (which oh so many people involved in government and planning are). Then of course between all those useful bike share locations there needs to be safe places to ride the bicycles either without traffic at all or with traffic moving at bicycle speeds. And with safety worked out, then there is absolutely no need for wearing ice cream buckets upon one's noggin.
  27. Gunther I am still not following you. The US is a dramatically different country that Colombia. The US is wealthier with much higher per capita incomes. In the Barrios of Medellin, the existing residents generally couldn't afford to own or operate cars. So when Gondolas come to the area, that means that residents suddenly have access to the rest of the region in a way that isn't true in wealthier regions like the US. So the residents of Medellin may be willing to pay a much greater share of there incomes for that service than the residents of Sacramento. While Gondolas have been successful in Medellin, its by not means certain that if you built a Gondola in Sacramento, that enough of the residents of Sacramento would utilize it to cover the costs of building it or even operating it. In Tokyo and Hong Kong the mass transit systems can earn a profit. But in Sacramento, no mass transit system even covers it operating cost. Sacramento is pretty flat, there aren't many hills, its also not particularly dense. Land uses are quite segregated. Most people rarely live, work or shop in the same neighborhoods. Overall only about 3% of all trips in the Sacramento region are handled by mass transit. Most trips aren't from the periphery to the core, but from one part of the periphery to another part of the periphery. There are also a lot of regions in the US that function more like Sacramento than say Manhattan. What I am saying is that US government federal policy that mandated that 5% of all transit projects spending be spent on experimental projects including places like Sacramento is likely to end up funding a lot of expensive policy failures. If the first five Gondola experimental R&D projects funded were located in areas similiar to Sacramento, such as Fresno, Des Moines, Omaha or Tuscon. There is an excellent chance that no more Gondola projects would ever be funded in the US because people would assume that Gondola projects just don't work in the US.
  28. @Ed, I've only been there a few times, but even in Tucson I could see an urban gondola working. Tucsonites/Tucsonians can shout me down if they like. St Mary's Hospital east to the strip malls, south down Bonita to the ASU Campus south to Congress St and then east across the I-10, through downtown above Congress St to the Amtrak Station and then to a park and ride on East Broadway. Yeah it'd need regular trains to PHX to arrive at the railway station, and it improve if there was lots of development in the parking lots of strip malls to improve density and livability. Sure it's only a tiny, tiny bit of the metro area, but the usefulness of aerial gondolas gives even an at first seemingly unlikely place, potential.
  29. @Ed >>In the Barrios of Medellin, the existing residents generally couldn't afford to own or operate cars<>So when Gondolas come to the area, that means that residents suddenly have access to the rest of the region in a way that isn't true in wealthier regions like the US<>Most people rarely live, work or shop in the same neighborhoods<>If the first five Gondola experimental R&D projects funded were located...>> You don't need any cent of R&D money to build an urban ropeway if you have enough passengers. With enough passengers, ropeway lines are "money printing machines".
  30. Oh it was not correct published: @Ed ED: "In the Barrios of Medellin, the existing residents generally couldn't afford to own or operate cars". G: Yes and no. And another problem is, that the barrios grew unplanned and disorganized. There are too little streets. ED: "So when Gondolas come to the area, that means that residents suddenly have access to the rest of the region in a way that isn't true in wealthier regions like the US". G: Gondolas or other mass transportation could help you to intenionally abstain from car traffic, IF YOU HAVE TO DO THIS. If you have no car jams, freedom of driving, healthy air, blindness toward CO2-emissions and low cost gasoline, nobody would change to mass transportation of course. ED:"Most people rarely live, work or shop in the same neighborhoods" G: Well, ride by bike around the neighborhood, you don't need any mass transportation. ED: "If the first five Gondola experimental R&D projects funded were located... G: You need not any cent of R&D money to build an urban ropeway if you have enough passengers.With enough passengers ropeways are a "money printing machine".
  31. I have envisioned a system like this. If the passengers were sorted by destination then attendant would just input the destination, displayed on an LED sign on the outside of the gondola and it would just whisk through the other stations until it arrived at it's destination. So, what am I missing? Why wouldn't that work?

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