Left Coasting : Have Pod, Will Travel

California does some blue sky thinking about public transport

by Rosalea Barker

Between May this year and October 2011, the Division of Mass Transportation within the California Department of Transportation is developing a statewide transit strategic plan: “The work will lead to the development of an action plan that enables the State to facilitate the delivery of cost-effective public transit services that promote multiple objectives including improved mobility, meeting global warming initiatives, job access, and environmental improvements.”

Part of that strategic plan is likely to involve transit-oriented development, or TOD. Transit-oriented development is not a new concept. From the time when humans first began following trails established by animals – and then created communities at places along those trails that were favorable for trading or agriculture – ease of access between home, amenities, and workplaces has been the desirable order of things.

That’s why the beginnings of cheap mass transit in the US lie with real estate companies that also owned transit companies—which ran at a loss in their own right but added immense value to the land that was being sold. Within a decade of the introduction of electric streetcars as a means of mass transport to city centers from the new suburbs, city diameters had doubled.

Once the automobile became affordable to those wishing to escape city living for the suburbs, real estate companies turned their attention to supporting freeways instead, and the continued viability of transit systems depended on their being managed by local authorities. The amount of Federal and state funds made available for mass transit has always been less than the amount available for road systems, in part because of the military.

“In the early years of WWII a number of American urban freeways were justified partly on the grounds that they would facilitate evacuation,” writes M.G. Lay in Ways of the World. As late as 1969, Lay writes, the car was being promoted by highway boosters as “a rolling home. Persons can eat and sleep in it, keep warm and dry, receive vital instructions by radio, drive out of danger areas, and even be afforded some protection against nuclear fallout.”

Americans’ continuing love affair with the car is neatly encapsulated in the quote on the dedication page of PJ O’Rourke’s 2009 book Driving Like Crazy:

“We drive our cars because they make us free. … Governments detest our cars; they give us too much freedom. How can you control people who can climb into a car at any time of the day or night and drive who knows where?”

Public transit agencies, therefore, start from way behind the Freedom 8-ball, so to speak. Not only are they providing a service that of necessity consists of pre-defined schedules and stops, but they are government entities in a time when “government” is a four-letter word. No amount of statistics about how long people sit in traffic jams at commute hours, or about how much money they will save by taking public transportation instead of taking their car will convince them to give up their freedom.

Pods: Let’s do it sideways

Transit-oriented development—which creates a walkable community that includes housing, shopping, workplaces and other amenities grouped around a transit stop—can be a good means to facilitate and encourage transit use. Another means, which has been put to the test in Europe, removes the shackles of a fixed schedule by turning public transit into, in effect, a sideways elevator. From October 27-29 this year, San Jose will host the 4th Podcar City Conference.

Personal Rapid Transit, aka PRT or Podcars, differ from the Automated People Movers already used at many airports in that they are not travelling continuously, but can be called at will. According to the conference website, “Passengers travel non-stop on the shortest way from their chosen start to the destination point. … Intermediate stations, running on separate tracks parallel to the main track, are intelligently bypassed via switching control systems. … Intelligently designed PRT can complement conventional mass transit in the form of feeder-networks.”

In a video posted by Microsoft in 2008 about its plan to use PRT to move its 30,000 employees around their corporate headquarters, the narrator speaks of the “last mile” problem that dogs transportation networks, the same way it dogs broadband networks. Of course, the podcars have to either travel on a surface or hang from one, and they need some form of motive power, usually electricity. The ones in use at Heathrow Airport use battery power; a solution in development in the States, SkyTran, uses maglev for suspension.
(For a Swedish dream of the future see Bubbles and Beams )

F or a bit of perspective about how Angelinos saw their future back in 1942, browse this book in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s library, Cities are for People.

And for the story of how electric streetcars—one of the most rapidly accepted innovations in the history of technology—were dumped in favor of diesel buses you should read the history of the East Bay’s fight with General Motors, which had used a front company called National City Lines to buy up transit operations like the local Key System. “In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled against GM in United States v. National City Lines Inc., which said that GM was monopolizing sales of buses and supplies to its subsidiary companies. GM was fined a paltry $5,000, and each of its executives one dollar.” Along with GM, Firestone and Standard Oil of California bought out transit operations in 50 cities across the US between 1936 and 1950, according to this article in Oakland Magazine.

Oh, did I mention that GM unveiled a range of Electric Networked Vehicles—commonly called pod cars—at the Shanghai World Expo this year?