Can Pod Cars Transform Traffic in Delhi?

Delhi is considering installing “pod cars” as a form of public transit. According to New Delhi Television (NDTV), India’s news station, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit asked Delhi Integrated Multi Modal Transit System Ltd. (DIMTS) and Transport Department to prepare a detailed project report on introducing the pollution-free transport system in the city.

The pod car system, also known as personal rapid transit (PRT), is a public transportation mode featuring small automated vehicles operating on a network of specially-built tracks. “In a pod car system, vehicles are sized for individual or small group travel, typically carrying no more than six passengers per vehicle,” the report explains.

Is this the future of mass transit in Indian cities?

Delhi’s transport system plans to test the pilot project in areas such as Dwarka, Karol Bagh and Delhi University, along the western portion of Delhi.

NDTV reports that travelling in the Delhi PRT would cost Rs. 6 ($0.14) per km for commuters.

Similar projects have been in the talks in India. ULTra-Fairwood, a joint venture aspiring to introduce the pod car system to the State Governments of Punjab and Haryana, has been discussing the idea with infrastructure developers to establish partnerships, reports the Hindu Business Line (HBL). ULTra (Urban Light Transport) is a UK-based company that owns the PRT technology. Fair wood Consultants Pvt. Ltd. is an integrated urban development company headquartered in India and is the second part of the equation in making PRT a reality.

HBL reports that according to the project’s proposal, implementing a PRT system in Amritsar, Punjab would cost Rs. 500 crore ($ 112 million) for a 3.2-kilometer (about 2 miles) route with seven stations. The PRT system in Gurgaon, Haryana is estimated to cost Rs. 5,000 crore ($1.12 billion) for 105 kilometers (about 65 miles) with 143 stations powered by about 3,000 vehicles, the reports says.

ULTra-Fairwood aims to operate on a “build-operate-transfer” basis, relieving the State Government from having to make any initial financial investments. To accomplish this, the companies would own the right to operate the system for 30-35 years and earn the right of way from the State Government to build permanent elevated roads, HBL reports.

Despite the enthusiasm for the project, issues of funding are still unclear. ULTra is working on confirming financing from developers and financial investors but the details of funding are uncertain, the HBL adds.

ULTra lists a number of benefits to the PRT system, including flexible routing, 24-hour availability, zero on-site emissions and non-stop travel to your destination.

OUTSIDE THE POD

Such promises of benefits may be misleading. ULTra claims that its PRT system has an average system energy usage of 0.55 millijoules per passenger kilometer, which is half, or even a quarter, of a traditional public or private transport mode. But the company’s promise of zero emissions only applies to on-site usage. They make no promises for off-site emissions, which could equal or surpass the emissions of current vehicles, depending on the power source. A solar- or biodiesel-fueled vehicle could perhaps promise carbon neutrality, but electric vehicles, like ULTra’s pod cars, run on grid electricity, which means they rely on fossil fuel, explains Patti Prairie, CEO of Brighter Planet, a startup managing environmental footprints of businesses. “Until we green the grid, a new electric vehicle plugged into your garage outlet becomes a coal-powered vehicle,”  she said in an interview with Fast Company.

Dario Hidalgo, senior transport engineer at EMBARQ (the producer of this blog), confirms Prairie’s points on monitoring all points of energy consumption for vehicles before labeling them zero-emissions. “[Emissions from electric vehicles] come from the power plant, and in some cases, CO2 emissions are higher than those of an efficient internal combustion engine fleet,” Hidalgo says. “It all depends on the carbon content of the power plant, which can also be problematic on other pollutants if it uses poor quality coal and technology and is located in urban settings.”

Further alarming is the cost of the system and the small, niche group it will serve for such a large amount of capital. A public transit option with the capacity to mobilize larger amounts of people is critical in a rapidly growing city like Delhi.

Cities need permanent solutions to mobility problems, but it’s important to keep in mind that demographics change, as do commuter patterns. Permanent infrastructure that serves a niche group will only prove to be a nuisance to the city. The infrastructure that enables pod cars to function will remain as a lasting fixture in the city even if the pod car system fails to succeed.

“PRT systems generate a lot of enthusiasm: they look sleek, modern and the new versions are definitely cool. But jumping into them should be taken with care,” Hidalgo says. “On the one hand, any electric-powered technology is not ‘zero emissions,’ as that depends on the grid. On the other, they may not be as cost effective as simpler alternatives. In general, evaluating alternatives is a good practice and should be applied to any urban investment decision before committing large amounts of capital or guarantees.”

What do you think about Delhi incorporating pod cars as public transit? “Yes, No, I Don’t Know?” Vote here in a survey created by Eric Britton of World Streets.

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