A rendering of a PRT system in Stockhold (Hans Kylberg/Flickr)

Pod Taxis In NCR: Useful But No Magic Pill For Decongestion

The government must look at a mass transit project for the Delhi-Gurgaon-Manesar corridor to help in decongesting traffic, leaving personal rapid transit systems to operate in low capacity areas like residential or industrial neighbourhoods.

The Centre on 27 December recommended inviting fresh bids for the highly-publicised Pod Taxi system in the National Capital Region (NCR) between Delhi and Gurgaon. This comes on the heels of the Bruhath Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) decision on 14 November to invite tenders to build six lines in the Information Technology (IT) capital.

Earlier proposals didn’t go through after the NITI Aayog raised red flags about the safety of the system. It asked the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) to direct bidders to build a kilometre-long pilot line because it felt that the technology in use was ‘unproved’. The new proposal seeks to follow standards and regulations put forth by the Automated People Movers (APM) Standards Committee that was prepared by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

The first phase will see a line between Dhaula Kuan in Delhi and Manesar in Haryana. The original proposal was to build a 12-km line connecting the Delhi-Haryana border to Rajiv Chowk in Gurgaon, but it has since been extended on both sides.

But Why Are We Looking For A PRT Between Two Cities?

Pod taxis come under the umbrella of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems. A PRT system – consisting of automated vehicles – typically carries between three to six passengers per vehicle. The previous proposal in the NCR failed due to a condition imposed by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) – the system needed to carry 3,000 passengers per hour. This would mean 600 pods per hour, or 10 pods in a minute, five in each direction. Assuming that the PRT operates at the same time as the Delhi Metro (18 hours a day), 3,000 passengers per hour would mean 54,000 passengers carried in a day. In comparison, the 231 km-long Delhi Metro carries 27.6 lakh passengers in a day while the 11-km long operational line in Mumbai carries an average of 3.5 lakh passengers per day. With the opening up of more lines, ridership will definitely increase in both cities.

An important fact here is that Manesar is a city located nearly 18 km south of Gurgaon along the Delhi-Mumbai national highway. Gurgaon is located 32 km away from New Delhi (in the heart of Delhi) and is an extended suburb of the national capital. Other cities in the NCR like Faridabad, Ghaziabad are closer to Delhi and practically contiguous with it. So why is a low-capacity PRT network being chosen to serve two cities that are not only 50 km apart, but also have a large city (Gurgaon) falling between them?

The world’s oldest and most extensive PRT line, the Morgantown PRT in Morgantown, West Virginia in the United States – connecting three campuses of West Viriginia University and the city – is five km long with a daily ridership of 16,000 people. Similar systems exist in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi (10 cars on a 1.4km long line), Heathrow Airport in London (21 cars on a 3.9 km line connecting Terminal 5 and the car park) and Suncheon Bay in South Korea (41 cars on a 5 km line).

Of these systems, the UlTra line in Heathrow airport cost £30 million to build, a sum that works out to Rs 258 crore or Rs 66 crore per km. Masdar city, meanwhile, is an upcoming planned city where automobiles are proposed to be banned, thus necessitating a PRT. However, due to technical issues, the system was not expanded beyond the pilot phase and instead a fleet of Mitsubishi electric cars was inducted to provide point-to-point transit options.

Why then, are we relying on building an ultra-long PRT system that may well fall below capacity for the route that it serves?

As a nation, we are not known to building mega infrastructure projects on time. The PRT in Gurgaon will be built under a public-private partnership (PPP). Other PPP projects in the urban transit sector, namely the Hyderabad Metro and Mumbai Metro too were delayed massively due to major issues from land acquisition to lack of right-of-way to bureaucratic red-tapism. Given the money involved (well over Rs 4,000 crore), one can assume that this project too may face hurdles that are similar in nature. Thus, when it opens up, it might very well be below capacity for the actual traffic.

Speed, too is an important factor. PRT systems, while faster (with an average speed ranging from 80km/hr to 120km/hr) carry fewer people. The Green Line of Bengaluru’s Namma Metro takes approximately 45 minutes to cover 24 km which gives it an average of 35 km/hr. The Mumbai Metro takes 20 minutes to cover its 11 km route, at more or less the same speed as other metro systems, although it does have a maximum speed of 80 km/hr at certain stretches, which is also applicable to the Chennai Metro. While PRT systems can move faster, it will require a larger number of stations on the way to be effective. As the number of stations increases, speeds decrease because the vehicles have to slow down and then speed up (acceleration and deceleration). If there are not too many stations en route, then the system becomes practically useless given its capacity.

Pods Vs Metros And Cars Vs Buses

As explained earlier on Swarajya, a PRT system – when compared to a mass rapid transit (MRT) system like a Metro rail – is akin to comparing a car to a bus, or a chain of buses. Smaller vehicles will need to make more trips to carry more number of passengers, or more vehicles. At six people per pod, it would take 250 pods to ferry 1,500 people at any point in time. In comparison the Delhi Metro carries 300 people per coach and a single six-coach train can carry more people.

If the government really wants to decongest the Delhi-Gurgaon-Manesar corridor, it needs to look at a mass transit project like the expansion of the Delhi Metro with a new line. Haryana too, needs to look at the feasibility of extending the Rapid Metro Rail Gurgaon towards Manesar.

PRT systems can be built in low capacity areas like residential or industrial neighbourhoods to connect them with a higher capacity system like a metro or a suburban rail system.

Also Read:

Why We Should Be Sceptical About Pod Taxi Projects For Bengaluru And Gurugram

Podcars Are Not The Answer To The Urban Traffic Problem In Indian CitiesS