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Personal Rapid Transit in Unexpected Places
Morgantown's PRT, or as some would like to say, "GRT." Photo by Sean Marshall.

Morgantown's PRT, or as some would like to call it, GRT, for "group rapid transit." Photo by Sean Marshall.

Morgantown, West Virginia, home of West Virginia University (WVU),  is a metropolitan area of a bit more than 110,000 residents (add an additional 30,000 to account for the student population.)  It’s hilly, lush and deep in Appalachia, nestled among forested swaths of land and along the Monongahela River. The state is not necessarily associated with innovation, urbanization and green technology.

But the small city is actually the site of the only operational PRT project in the United States. It began as a demonstration project funded by former U.S. President Richard Nixon as a means of ushering in his support of mass transit. He signed the Federal Highway Act in 1973, allowing nonessential highways in urban areas to be substituted for mass transit, and passed the Urban Mass Transportation Assistance Act 0f 1970. Despite Nixon’s relatively green agenda, PRT is a controversial infrastructure project. At TheCityFix we’ve  written about Google’s support of PRT, in the form of a grant to Shweeb, a New Zealand company behind a technology that allows people to travel in pedal-powered pods along an elevated cycle track. But, as we said before, this funding might be better used in support of low-cost transit efforts that provide greater impact while improving the fabric of cities.

The New York Times in 2007 wrote of West Virginia University’s (WVU) system: the “city’s white elephant now looks like a transit workhorse.”  Built in 1975, the PRT system is open from early in the morning until 10:00 p.m. at night during the school year and stops at five campus stations. Powered by electric motors, the computer-driven cars, on a good day, arrive at stations within five minutes of payment or the swipe of an ID card. The system was designed to link two WVU campuses that sit two miles apart.  University students can ride as often as they wish after paying the fee of $63 per semester, which funds 60 percent of the system’s $3 million annual operating costs, according to The New York Times.  Around 15,000 people ride the service each day.

More figures from the WVU website:  Without ID cards the cost is 50 cents to ride the PRT;  the system has 73 cars that can each accommodate eight seated passengers and comfortably carry a total of 20 passengers; the PRT can travel up to 30 miles per hour and it takes a little bit more than 11 minutes to ride the entire length of the system. The system is not with its failures in maintenance, problems due to weather and unreliability. But the Times praises the one-of-a-kind model:

Riders can push a button and select which of the five stops they want on the system’s 3.6-mile route; it is like a horizontal elevator that can go 30 miles per hour. The driverless, 21-passenger fiberglass cars, gliding on rubber wheels and powered by electric motors, pick up riders and deliver them to their stops quickly, bypassing intermediate stations along the concrete and steel guide way. It is this individualized destination option that sets it apart from other cities’ systems.

In Morgantown, the system is called PRT, but according to some, it’s technically classified as “group rapid transit,” or GRT, given the number of people each car can carry. Perhaps labeling it PRT was more of a political decision than anything else.  Eighty percent of the initial capital for the project was funded with federal dollars from the Federal Transit Administration. An explanation of the terminology:

The operators of this system call it the Morgantown PRT. Others do not think it is a “true” PRT since the vehicles and guideway are so large and not all of the rides are non-stop from the origin to the destination. For these reasons, we prefer to call it a Group Rapid Transit (GRT) system. Certainly, it is as close to a “true” PRT as has been achieved in the U.S. to date.

For more information, Cities21, a research and advocacy group, explains the designations for PRT and GRT and lists project examples.

Speaking of other firsts, Cabinentaxi was the first conceived PRT project in the 1970s in Hagen, Germany, but it never became operational and is now entirely defunct.  The video is wonderful for many reasons (notice the music!), but also pay attention to the video’s before-its-time use of urban planning and public transit buzz words, like “demand-oriented, low-cost urban transportation,” which we still use today.

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  • Delbert Royce

    The PRT system in Morgantown, WV is a phenomenal piece of technology that should be adopted around the country. The system requires minimal right of way (concrete pillars at ground level to support the elevated rail) in high density areas and at ground level it takes up no more space than a lane and a half of highway. It also has an exceptional 95% reliability record in a four season climate where summer can get into the 90s and winter can bring ice and heavy snows.

    Traffic congestion in Morgantown is a huge problem. Commuting a mile and a half can take up to 45 minutes. The PRT eliminates 15,000 commuters from the snarled Morgantown traffic grid everyday while getting its riders to their destinations in 5 – 10 minutes. Remarkably, it’s been in service for 35 years and still going strong. I wish they would expand it into new growing residential areas so we could leave the cars behind.

  • It’s hard to make up one’s mind about PRT. I read a fair amount, and I am still ambiguous on this form of transit.

    The pro people promise a lot, and it’s doubtful that they can deliver everything. On the other hand some of the critics even dismiss that this works on a technological level, which it apparently it does.

    The technology does seem to work, but the question is really about capacity compared to the structural engineering required — or more simply put, cost vs benefit. It’s doubtful that PRT can compete with busses in low density areas due to the cost of the tracks etc., but on the other hand they might not be able to compete with the capacity of streetcars or lrt at similar costs.

    Plus, there is the question how these intrusive right of ways can fit into the urban fabric. It seems so far that PRT planners have not come up with many useful proposals to reuse existing right of ways. At the same time PRT advocates seem to have a lot in common with the auto and asphalt lobby.

    So it might stay a niche product (e.g. as in Heathrow), or it might find some larger applications. We’ll see, but don’t hold your breath.

  • Marsden Burger

    Jonna,

    First, thank you for your kind comments about the terms used in the Cabintaxi film, but they were in common use at the time as well. I was part of the team and reviewed the text for the English translation. Those were common terms that we used in planning in Chicago where I had worked before going to Germany. Unfortunately, it may show how little we have advanced, with well meaning people working hard in the planning fields for a long time without being listen to.

    Second, thank you for having the courage in effect to point out that just because someone has money, derived in mass from unrelated activity, it is no reason to think that they will have understanding in everything. The gulf between what is possible in transportation to improve the quality of life in our cities, and what is presently being done through our government process is so hugh, that relatively minor investment guided by those that understand transportation technology development issues could rapidly change our cities for the better. Few are willing to point out that the emperor has no clothes, clearly Mr. Paige’s activities in this field so far, while surely well meaning, are those of a dilettante who’s dabbling actually serves to retard advancement.

    Third, the Cabintaxi technology is not defunct – but was saved by many well meaning individuals who appreciate: the importance of those planning words in the film; that the Cabintaxi technology was the most advanced transit system ever fully developed – still surpassing the activities that are going on today; and is still available. The technology documentation has been moved from Germany and sits in boxes in Detroit. A sad irony where a dying city, filled with unemployed transportation engineers, sits next to the most advance urban system in the world, that collects dust.

    Resurrecting this system, already approved for installation in their cities by the German and United States governments in past programs is far easier to do than the development of lessor systems from scratch.

    Thank you for your good articles on these issues.

    Marsden Burger