Personal rapid transit systems, using podcars, sound exciting, but are they practicable?
Beaming over the city in a metal tube on guided rails may not be new to Indians, what with the spread of metro services in different cities and their soaring popularity. But shorten that metal tube to accommodate just four to six people at a time and have them ferry in busy areas for short distances and you have a whole different set of parameters to consider in making an honest assessment.
Personal rapid transit (PRT) systems differ from regular mass transit networks in that they offer personal, on-demand, point-to-point travel, where you press a button, key in your destination, get seated in the car and off you go—like a cab that doesn’t have to deal with traffic and is powered electrically and available round the clock (and they look really cool). They combine the privacy of a cab, yet offer the ability to move masses of people. The technology holds plenty of promise as a modern urban mode of transport, which is why there was much fanfare when it took off in Morgantown, West Virginia, in 1975. However, over 40 years later, PRT systems are active only in London’s Heathrow Airport, Masdar City (a planned community in Abu Dhabi), Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and Suncheon, South Korea, besides the one in Morgantown. Many countries have sought to get on board the “podcar” train over the years, but it has unfortunately left a long trail of failed aspirations.
This has been a transport revolution that never happened.
Now, in what may seem like a re-ignition of the technology, several Indian states are pursuing the installation of PRT systems in the form of podcars to help resolve last-mile connectivity challenges and support key areas in cities which suffer from inadequate feeder services. Bengaluru is taking the lead as Gurugram struggles with delays after it failed to garner enough interest in response to its pitch last year. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) has already received responses from at least three companies to tenders floated mid-May.
Six other states—Maharashtra, Kerala, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Bihar—are also reported to be in talks with PRT system developers and have either already invited expressions of interest or are in the process of doing so.
All the activity on this front is pushing India to develop its own standards and specifications for PRT systems. This will make India the first country to have a dedicated PRT policy, perhaps paving the way for other countries to do the same.
The requirements laid out by the BBMP give us an indication of the podcar technology we are likely to see in the country. The civic body wants the automated, driverless cars to be solar powered, easy to operate and able to carry 15,000 people an hour at speeds not exceeding 100 kmph, and clocking, on average, 60 kmph. At this speed, podcars would become the fastest mode of transport in the city, as the next fastest option, metro rail, averages a speed of 40-50 kmph. On the cost of travel, BBMP Commissioner N Manjunath Prasad has made his intentions clear. “We want it to be cheaper than an autorickshaw ride,” he told the newspaper Bangalore Mirror.
Podcars certainly sound promising. The problem is, PRT systems as they exist today may be out of whack with the transport requirements of major Indian cities. Of the six stretches identified in Bengaluru, for instance, MG Road to the Leela Palace or MG Road to Koramangala are densely populated corridors where the demand for public transport is generally very high. Podcars, with their small carrying capacity and personal nature of travel, might be ill-suited to deliver on their purpose in such stretches.
Also, considering how today’s PRT systems are conceived, podcars tailgate one another on guideways. Imagine if a podcar were to suffer a malfunction and stop midway on an elevated monorail or suspended from a cable. Not only will that be a nuisance for the passengers inside the podcar, the entire system will come to a grinding halt since other podcars will not be able to pass. The cost of a breakdown would be quite high.
Now consider the successful application of podcars around the world. The one in London’s Heathrow Airport connects Terminal 5 to its business passenger car park; the one in Masdar is essentially a shuttle offering a short-distance commute; Morgantown is the most successful case for podcars, but the city hosts only about 30,000 permanent residents with some seasonal uptick from students of West Virginia University every year. For podcars to add significant value as an alternative mode of transport in India, where the parameters are wholly different, they will have to be upgraded to a form that would suit the local conditions (the hard part) or be employed in areas with poor feeder services and in small but significant neighbourhoods. In that sense, the podcar network stretching from Jayanagar 4th Block to JP Nagar 6th Phase in Bengaluru or between Ajmer railway station to the Ajmer dargah in Rajasthan (proposed), for instance, would yield better results.
But then a question arises: is better enough?
Offering origin-to-destination service, podcars will be up against ride-sharing aggregator platforms like Uber and Ola which, despite being costlier, provide the sometimes necessary convenience of door-to-door service. Besides, metro rail—or even local trains—can accommodate passengers in much greater numbers at any point in time than podcars.
BBMP’s requirement of 15,000 passengers per hour—at six persons per podcar—would necessitate the operation of 2,500 podcars every hour, or over 40 every minute. That seems impractical. Would it be a good choice, then, to queue up at podcar stations till one finds a ride—in most cases, not even directly to one’s home or office?
As Eric Jaffe writes in Citylab, “personal rapid transit reproduces modes that already exist in the city, only less effectively”. The more practical and productive thing to do is to get to work on existing modes of travel in the city and integrate them best according to the city’s needs.
It’s been slow going for the rollout of metro services in different cities. Bengaluru, for instance, has repeatedly missed its deadlines and remains behind schedule. The central and state governments need to get their act together and press the accelerator. Once both Phases 1 and 2 are rolled out in the city, daily ridership is expected to rise to over 14 lakh people. That would significantly reduce the burden on city roads, making a significant contribution, hopefully, towards reducing the reliance on private cars and autorickshaws for regular commutes. The same holds true for other major cities.
There is a tendency, however, to think of metro systems as a panacea for all urban traffic woes and therefore direct all attention towards it. That is a mistake. Well-developed metro networks are certainly part of the solution, but the focus must remain on getting more public and private buses on the roads. Procuring a certain number of buses doesn’t take longer than a few months and buses are easier to finance than metros anyway. In addition, the use of app-based taxi services like Uber should be encouraged as they can go a long way in keeping private cars off the streets. For shorter distances, people could even ride bicycles or take to walking if dedicated cycle tracks are provided and pavements developed and upgraded regularly.
These arguments must not be construed as part of a case against podcars. Whereas critics of the technology tend to take a firm stand against it, podcars can indeed be effective in certain areas like airports, small commercial neighbourhoods or communities and smaller cities. They do, also, offer a facelift as the city begins to look more futuristic with the adoption of such technology—and that should be welcomed. But like with any technology, podcars have to be put to use in the right environments to draw the most out of them. A parallel can be drawn with driverless cars in this case, which themselves face some of the stiffest challenges anywhere in India, including varying road types, occasional traffic in the form of animals and objects, and a generally low tendency of people to strictly obey road rules. Driverless cars will need more work, just as podcars will, if they are to be adopted in India.
In their current form, however, podcars are more likely to become objects of fancy for tourists than an urban transport solution which makes a meaningful difference to people’s lives.
This article is a part of our special series on urban mobility.