Where's the gadgetbahn? - 7
Leroy W. Demery, Jr.
As stated previously, I am skeptical of 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 is Japan. I have seen specific locations that, from the perspective of empirical observation of the built environment, appear "tailor-made" for PRT. It is perfectly reasonable to ask, with reference to these specific locations, "Where's the PRT?" The dialogue on this particular topic might prove very interesting.
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. It is reasonable to "unbundle" these characteristics in order to consider the performance of systems that are not "true PRT" but have "some PRT characteristics." Several examples exist in Japan. It is also reasonable to ask whether changes in service characteristics, to the "true PRT" model, would generate significantly greater passenger traffic - and in a cost-effective manner.
As a professional transit planner, my principal interests are urban passenger travel markets, and the characteristics of the transit services provided to serve these markets. I do not care about any public transit technology, or system, for its own sake.
Anderson, by contrast, promotes "high-capacity PRT" (Hi-Cap PRT) as a means to address:
... a wide range of outstanding problems of our worldwide civilization that have become more and more severe as the decades have passed.
(Anderson, J[ohn] Edward. 2005. The Future of High-Capacity Personal Rapid Transit, p. 3).
Those of us who understand PRT know that it can, if carefully designed, produce enormous benefits for society everywhere (ibid, p. 25).
This Utopian fantasy has the sound of something penned to provide justification for PRT per se. In other words:
PRT provides a means to address the (urban) problems of the world because, well, it's PRT.
That Anderson's principal concern is technology, almost to the exclusion of market and service characteristics, is obvious:
It must be remembered in thinking about a new transportation system that transportation is a means to an end, not an end in itself. (Anderson 2005, p. 2).
The unqualified statement above is false - and, in the context of Anderson's paper - is mere lip service. To Anderson, PRT technology is a virtual "end in itself." He blithely ignores the findings of Ory and Mokhtarian (Ory, David T., and Patricia L. Mokhtarian "When is getting there half the fun? Modeling the liking for travel," Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 39, 2-3:97-123, February-March 2005). He also ignores past experience, domestic and foreign - and simple common sense.
Among the various "niche markets" for public transit service is the category labeled "recreational riding," or "joyriding." This market category exists, can be quantified and, absent significant negative impact, should be served. Granted, a transit facility would ordinarily not be built and operated with public funds for recreational traffic, but that is beside the point. Traffic attracted to a given transit service or facility "for its own sake" constitutes an identifiable market that should be served.
Conversely, service should not be provided where markets do not exist or are not sufficient to justify the cost. As I shall discuss in due course, slogans or ideology (e.g. "true PRT") do not provide sufficient justification for operation of transit service.
(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.)
Where's the PRT? - 7.0
If it is not reasonable and proper to "unbundle" transit market, service and technology characteristics for separate consideration, then why is this so?
The apparent answer - that the relationship is not relevant - tends to support "Avidor's Challenge" - and to an extent that might lead one to muse:
Avidor might be on to something ...
A strange oversight in virtually all of the PRT literature I've read is that travel market characteristics are described (or defined) nebulously, if at all. Service characteristics get elaborated in terms of hypothetical optima - to be realized by refinement and application of technology (Anderson's "new transportation system," q.v. above). Thus, the relationship between market and service characteristics is difficult to establish.
In other words:
Ralph Waldo Emerson says that if we build a better mousetrap, then the world will beat a path to our door. So let's build the "optimum mousetrap."
We'll define the criteria to guide the design. Then, we'll derive the general features of the "optimum mousetrap" from these criteria. Next, we'll determine the "product attributes" which the design provides, or can readily provide. These we'll optimize through refinement of mousetrap "subsystems," when we'll consider subsystem criteria, characteristics and trade-offs.
We'll have not just a "better mousetrap" but the "optimum mousetrap" - and the world will definitely beat a path to our door.
... just because it's the "optimum mousetrap."
Nothing here suggests any particular concern with the relationship between market and product or service. It appears axiomatic that the "optimum mousetrap" would provide maximum utility to consumers. In addition, it appears axiomatic that the product or service sells itself - it is not necessary to consider the market.
Jim Whitehurst, the noted computer-software industry leader, said in 2010 that:
According to Whitehurst, a "transformative" business model starts with an examination of the customer's needs. It gathers information about the customer's problems, and the shortcomings of current "models." It then works to "change the business model entirely, and with it the customer experience."
This principle was used nearly 30 years ago, in Tōkyō (if I recall the television documentary correctly) - with specific reference to mousetraps.
Most restaurant owners are less concerned with mousetraps than with mice - as in how to get rid of them. Conventional "snap traps," which kill by impact, have several, um, well-known disadvantages. Rodent-control poisons are not appropriate for use in restaurants. The "transformative" business model involved development of a third strategy, which (if I recall correctly) had not been used before: suffocation. Paper or foil sheets, coated with a strong adhesive, were placed in areas of suspected rodent infestation. When a mouse walked onto the sheet, it would become trapped and begin struggling to free itself. The mouse would eventually touch its nose to the adhesive, suffocate and die. Today, "glue traps" and "glue boards" are marketed for rodent control, together with the traditional "snap traps" and poisons. "Non-lethal" traps are also marketed.
To date, PRT has not been advanced with a "transformational" business model as described by Whitehurst. One could say that it has been advanced with no particular business model at all. It is therefore not surprising that, in the country where (PRT) "should" work and "should" already have been built, there are many locations where the built environment virtually begs the question:
Where are the PRT systems?