Where’s the gadgetbahn? - 3
Leroy W. Demery, Jr.
Introduction
As asserted previously, I am a skeptic when it comes to the concept of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). I believe that, if there is a country where (PRT) "should" work and "should" already have been built, it's Japan. Furthermore, I have seen specific locations that, from the perspective of empirical observation of the built environment, appear "tailor-made" for PRT.
PRT cannot plausibly be "sold" as a "bundle" of concepts (technology, service and market), not subject to "disaggregation." Characteristics of service, market and technology must be considered separately. I assert that it is, therefore, perfectly reasonable to ask, with reference to these specific locations (or others elsewhere), "Where's the PRT?" The dialogue on this particular topic might prove very interesting.
(I have also stated previously that neither I nor my associate, Michael D. Setty, coined the word gadgetbahn. I shall consider myself free to use "that word" with impunity, with reference to PRT or other public transport technology or service, prospective or not, for as long as my name or that of Michael Setty is associated with its coining.)
It should not be necessary to pore over maps of Japan to find locations where characteristics of the built environment suggest that PRT "should" work and "should" already have been built. The following should serve as a (relatively) "short list" of examples away from Tōkyō that underscore the principal point of this series.
Asahikawa: Where's the PRT? - 3.1
Asahikawa city (旭川市) is the second-largest city in Hokkaidō, and is located about 130 km northeast of Sapporo. (旭川市 is the official website in Japanese; Asahikawa, Hokkaidō and 旭川市 are the English- and Japanese-language "Wikipedia" pages, respectively.) The estimated population, at August 1, 2010, was 353,154. The land area was 747.60 km2 (again: crude population density statistics for Japanese cities are often highly misleading because municipal boundaries may include significant areas of agricultural or uninhabitable land).
Asahikawa, founded as a military outpost, is today a center of industry, commerce, regional administration and transport (and is also the headquarters of a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force division).  The population housed within the current municipal boundary was 22,000 at 1904. The population grew to 125,000 at 1926, to 184,000 at 1950 and to nearly 364,000 at 1985. The current population is down by about three percent from 1985.
The official website has an English-language Map of Asahikawa, and an English-language Central Area map.
Asahikawa city - Asahikawa station (letter "A") ("Google Maps;" scale is 21 mm = 1 km, about 1:48,000). Again, readers are encouraged to "explore" by shifting the image, and by zooming in and out. Many major destinations are labeled in English as well as Japanese, but not all. "Google Street View" images are available for Asahikawa.
The overall impression, away from the business center and major radial road corridors, is of relatively low-density development. The city has no urban expressways, but surface roads appear relatively wide and uncongested. The four radial railway lines carry some suburban traffic, but "local" service is infrequent. Large built-up areas are located away from rail lines. Among the major destinations served only by road is Asahikawa Airport (letter "A ") ("Google Maps;" scale 21 mm = 1 km, about 1:48,000).
A plan for a magnetic-levitation line was advanced during the 1980s. This was planned to use the エイチ・エス・エス・ティ ("HSST," High Speed Surface Transport) system first developed by Japan Air Lines (Urban Magnetic Levitation (MAGLEV) Transit - Japanese HSST System; History of the Development of the HSST Maglev Transportation System in Japan; High Speed Surface Transport (HSST) : A Japanese Maglev Technology). A short section of HSST guideway was built and used to test snow-fighting measures in late 1986 and early 1987. The project did not advance thereafter.
It would be  difficult to make a commercial ("business") case for a fixed-guideway public transport facility between central Asahikawa and Asahikawa Airport. The JR-Hokkaidō Furano Line railway passes near the airport, suggesting at least the possibility of a relatively short branch to the airport terminal. I note, however, that I have not seen any evidence that such a line has been studied, or even discussed. On the other hand, significant traffic generators are located well beyond walking distance from each other and from the nearest railway station. This is true of much of the city itself, in particular the right (north) bank of the Ishikari River.
Where, then, are the PRT systems?
Ishikari: Where's the PRT? - 3.2
Ishikari city (旭川市) adjoins Sapporo to the north. (石狩市 is the official website in Japanese; Ishikari, Hokkaidō and 石狩市 are the English- and Japanese-language "Wikipedia" pages, respectively.) The estimated population, at August 1, 2010, was 61,078. The land area was 721.86 km2.
As noted previously, crude population density statistics for Japanese cities are often highly misleading because municipal boundaries may include significant areas of agricultural or uninhabitable land. Ishikari city provides a very good example: most of the population is housed on a small share of the total land area.
The official English-language website of Ishikari city has a map, (scroll down), but this is intended for tourism and shows only a small part of the total land area.
Ishikari city - Ishikari city office (letter "A") ("Google Maps;" scale is 21 mm = 1 km, about 1:48,000). As before, readers are encouraged to "explore" by shifting the image, and by zooming in and out. "Google Street View" images are available for Ishikari. Two locations of importance are Shin-Kotoni station, JR-Hokkaidō (violet pointer), and Asabu station, Sapporo municipal metro Namboku Line.
Ishikari city has no fixed-link public-transport service to Sapporo. A railway was planned from the early 1900s. A company backed by Ishikari city and other investors managed to start construction in 1959 but was soon forced to suspend work because of lack of funds. The company attempted to raise funds by land sales, leasing and development, but could not resume construction. It entered bankruptcy in 1982, but remained active until competing proposals for monorail and LRT lines were advanced during the mid-1990s.
The railway company would up its affairs in 1998, but the dream did not go away. By 2001, there were no fewer than four competing plans including conventional rail, metro and monorail, LRT, and monorail. Estimated passenger traffic ranged from 50,000 to more than 100,000 passengers per day.
Where, then, is the PRT system?
Kōbe: Where's the PRT? - 3.3
More than 20 years ago, exploring a newly-developed area of Kōbe known as 西神ニュータウン, Seishin <New Town>, I came across the urban landscape which inspired this series. The salient aspect - high-density development, more than "just a short walk away" from metro (subway) stations - was quite evident from train windows. The potential for some form of shuttle transit service appeared obvious. In fact, taking in the view from one open-air station, I remember wondering:
Why isn't there a PRT system here?
Kōbe city (神戸市) lies about 30 km west of Ōsaka. (神戸市 is the official website in Japanese; Kobe and 神戸市 are the English- and Japanese-language "Wikipedia" pages, respectively.) The estimated population, at November 1, 2010, was 1,538,840. The land area was 552.23 km2.
At the risk of repetition: crude population density statistics for Japanese cities are often highly misleading because municipal boundaries may include significant areas of agricultural or uninhabitable land. Kōbe provides a good example, because a significant amount of the land within the municipal boundary is mountainous.
Seishin <New Town> lies northwest of central Kōbe, and is served by the municipal metro Seishin-Yamate Line. This, as shown on the aerial image (in green), Kōbe city - Seishin-chūō station (letter "A") ("Google Maps;" scale is 19 mm = 2 km, about 1:105,000), extends from Shin-Kōbe shinkansen station to the business center, continues southwestward through the central area, then turns northwestward to Seishin <New Town>.
Metro stations in the Seishin <New Town> area are Gakuen-toshi (purple pointer on map), Ikawadani (pink pointer), Seishin-minami (orange pointer) and Seishin-chūō (letter "A").
As before, readers are encouraged to "explore" by shifting the image, and by zooming in and out. "Google Street View" images are available for Kōbe. The principal transport hub is not Kōbe station, but Sannomiya station, located some distance to the northeast.
An aerial image of the area surrounding Seishin-chūō station ("Google Maps;" scale is 30 mm = 0.1 km, about 1:3,000). Photos, showing Seishin-chūō station east entrance, Seishin-chūō station west entrance, and Seishin-chūō station platform. Passenger traffic at this station was more than 10.4 million during 2009, or nearly 28,600 per (calendar) day.
One who explores the area by shifting the image will see Japanese-style suburbia at the extremities, with considerable medium- and high-density development near the station. Some of this is residential. I note that the salient aspect of this area - high-density development, more than "just a short walk away" from metro stations, is particularly evident from train windows.
Open-air segments of the metro line are marked clearly on the aerial images, so one can follow the line southward without difficulty.
An aerial image of the area surrounding Seishin-minami station ("Google Maps"). Not the high-density development located northeast of the station. Photo, showing bus terminal and Seishin-minami Center Building, near Seishin-minami station. Passenger traffic at this station was nearly 4.4 million during 2009, or more than 12,000 per (calendar) day.
An aerial image of the area surrounding Ikawadani station ("Google Maps"). This, I acknowledge, is an area of less-intensive development. Photo, showing bus terminal at Ikawadani station. Passenger traffic at this station was nearly 1.8 million during 2009, or more than 4,900 per (calendar) day.
An aerial image of the area surrounding Gakuen-toshi station ("Google Maps"). Gakuen-toshi might be translated as "University Town" - appropriately, because the area has six higher-education institutions: University of Marketing and Distribution Sciences, Kōbe City College of Nursing (official website in Japanese only), Kōbe City University of Foreign Studies, Kōbe Design University, Toyota Automotive Engineering College of Kōbe (official website in Japanese only), and University of Hyōgo, Gakuen-toshi Campus. Passenger traffic at the metro station was more than 6.7 million during 2009, or nearly 18,500 per (calendar) day.
I note that the metro line to Seishin <New Town> has "been there" for a number of years. It was most certainly not opened "yesterday," nor even last weekend. The line reached Gakuen-toshi in 1985, and was completed to Seishin-chūō in 1987. It has been in operation for nearly 25 years.
Where, then, are the PRT systems?