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| Moving ahead with PRTPersonal Rapid Transit (PRT) is public transport with a difference: you do not have to wait, you have a vehicle for personal use, and you travel straight to your destination. PRT systems are convenient, energy-efficient and cheap to run but, despite their long history of development, to date no European city has been bold enough to commission one. The EDICT project has reinforced the case for PRT by collecting detailed data on passengers’ opinions, energy savings and mobility improvements in five cities. Political issues are the only remaining barrier, the study concludes.
Getting around in cities is seldom easy, but PRT could ease many travel frustrations, according to Davina Fereday, a transport consultant with UK company Transport & Travel Research Ltd, and the coordinator of the EDICT project. PRT is based on small driverless electric vehicles that act as automated taxis, running on dedicated tracks and taking passengers straight to their destination stations. PRT enthusiasts say the system is quick, safe, flexible, and popular with passengers, especially those with disabilities. From the traveller's point of view PRT sidesteps most of the disadvantages of taxis, buses and trains: it avoids traffic jams, preserves personal space and involves little or no waiting.
PRT is also good news for city planners and environmentalists. As the vehicles are electric-powered they do not create smog-forming emissions and, being small and light, travelling at a modest 40 kph, they consume only around 2 kW of power, compared to 100 kW for an average petrol-driven car. And although they need tracks to run on, these too are lightweight, unobtrusive structures that are much cheaper than an urban light railway and can be installed overhead, above existing roads. Yet PRT is no lightweight when it comes to moving people: a single PRT track can carry as many people as a motorway lane.
EDICT (Evaluation and Demonstration of Innovative City Transport) began in late 2002 and finished in spring 2005, supported under the EU’s Fifth Framework Programme through the Key Action ‘City of Tomorrow and Cultural Heritage’. The project brought together 16 partners across Europe, 11 of whom were consultancies and universities and four were city or regional authorities. The other partner was Advanced Transport Systems Ltd (ATS), a UK company spin-off from Bristol University. With the help of engineering firms AMEC and Arup, ATS has developed a prototype system known as ULTra (Urban Light Transport) that sets the standard for the modern vision of PRT.
The lead partner in EDICT was the Welsh capital Cardiff which has been planning an ULTra system for several years. The city is home to ULTra's 1 km-long test track, which opened in 2002, and the council originally hoped to have a commercial system running by 2004. Progress slowed, however, after political disagreements and the withdrawal of funding by the Welsh Assembly in 2003. Cardiff's plan is to use PRT to link the city centre with Cardiff Bay, a former dockland area that is now being regenerated but has relatively poor transport links.
The Dutch city of Eindhoven decided to look at PRT more to boost innovation and improve its image than to solve an existing transport problem. The plan was to link the university campus with the city centre via a 3 km-long PRT track, but support faded and the research was transferred to Almelo, on the other side of the country. The Almelo study covered the first phase of a PRT system connecting the railway station, the city centre and the hospital. At Ciampino in Italy, the plan was to link the city centre to Rome's second airport using 11 km of PRT track, of which some would be at street level, some elevated and some underground. The fifth scheme, at Huddinge in Sweden, is for a multi-line PRT system linking an out-of-town retail and leisure park – the largest in Scandinavia – with public transport and car parks.
All four of the PRT schemes studied in detail showed significant projected benefits and favourable economics. As well as cutting vehicle emissions and energy use, PRT can reduce traffic problems whilst making people more mobile, increasing the numbers of those using certain facilities and reducing social exclusion. The costs are reasonable, too. The Cardiff study, for instance, found that a PRT system would easily cover its operating costs and most of its capital costs. "When social costs and benefits are included, the rate of return looks very good," claims Ms. Fereday.
"EDICT was a detailed, rigorous study that has helped establish the viability of PRT in Europe," she continues. "With the help of public-private partnerships if need be, I hope we'll soon see the first operating PRT system. The only remaining barrier is political, really, and this has sent the politicians some positive messages."