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PRT Heathrow

Is This Where We're Headed?

Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) is a highly contentious subject. Some believe that podcars – cheap to build, cheap to run and supremely efficient – could one day replace not just public transport as we know it, but also private cars.

Beyond the low-emissions, the main appeal is that, not needing a driver, PRT could be a very real solution for an ageing population still in need of transport but no longer able to drive. A computer-controlled system of vehicles providing private on-demand round the clock travel, PRT podcars are powered entirely by electricity, and run on small, unobtrusive overhead guideways.

Some believe that PRT might well be the future of transport. Others think of the whole thing as an unworkable utopian vision, too complex, expensive, ugly and ridiculous to be truly workable. And it's here that the controversy lies. Detractors get sniffy, defenders get weirdly passionate.

The thing is, since 2011, there's been a fully functional PRT system in operation very close to home. Initially limited to a small area, the trials have been so successful that plans are already in place to significantly expand the system.

ULTra – Heathrow's PRT System

If you've landed at London Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5 since May 2011, you'll already be familiar with their PRT system. Designed to replace the bus service linking the car park and the terminal building, this £30 million system has demonstrated an operational reliability of over 99%, and reduced the average wait time for passengers to around 10 seconds.

The project was developed by British engineering company ULTra (Urban Light Transit), these PRT podcars run 22 hours a day, 7 days a week. They use about 50% less energy than the buses they replaced, and they count as an extremely rare example of UK traffic that drives on the right.

In May 2013, Heathrow's PRT system successfully ferried its 600,000th passenger, and a five year plan was announced to link terminals 2 and 3 to their respective car parks using a similar PRT system. It has even been suggested that the system could ultimately spread across not just the whole of the airport, but also provide links to nearby hotels using as many as 400 pods.

Could PRT Systems Become The Norm?

Imagine leaving your house each morning and entering your very own pod, which you drive yourself until you reach a PRT system – which has replaced the motorway – where you specify your destination before handing control over to a computer.

Because all the cars are travelling at safe speeds under reliable computer guidance, there are no accidents. ULTra describe their Heathrow pods as “the most environmentally friendly form of transit ever invented”. Green as can be and offering unprecedented levels of road safety - could this be the future?

It sounds too good to be true. Yet for such an idea to ever be feasible, it really is a question of all or nothing. Were these podcars to ever make it to the roads, they'd have to replace cars, not compete with them. At the moment, this seems highly unlikely. But even ten years ago, Heathrow's sophisticated PRT system would have seemed implausible.

Ultimately, though, it might always prove too expensive to instigate mass-implementation of PRT systems into existing infrastructures. However, it's in newly built environments – such as airports and urban environments – that PRT could potentially prove its worth.

PRT Masdar City

Masdar City

Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is a planned city arcology project that's aiming for a zero waste ecology. To achieve this, the use of cars will have to be severely limited. Though Masdar City was originally conceived as a car-free city, it's looking as though their infrastructure will now rely upon a mixture of electric vehicles and a PRT system similar to Heathrow's (pictured above).

But for areas that aren't blank canvasses with unlimited budgets, PRT could conceivably work as a solution to the “last mile” problem – that is, the question of ferrying commuters from the major public transport hubs to their final destination.

In any case, those who consider driving as more than a means to an end should rest assured that, even if the future does lie in PRT, we're talking a very distant future here.

Images from Wikimedia Commons.