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Transportation of Tomorrow Exists Today

June 07, 2003|Catherine G. Burke | Catherine G. Burke, an associate professor at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development, is president of the Advanced Transit Assn., which educates the public and officials about transit innovation.

Urban mobility in large metropolitan areas is failing. The automobile provides the most convenient transportation to all points in an area, but there is congestion and pollution. And there are many people who cannot drive. Buses and rail serve only a small proportion of people, at great cost.

We need real innovation.

The last major innovation in urban transport was the bus, introduced in London in 1905. The car was invented in Germany in 1885, and Ford began business in 1903. The first electric street railroad system was built in 1888 in Richmond, Va.

Of course, there have been improvements -- stronger engines, computerized systems, carpool lanes and improved fuels, but the fundamental innovations are still more than 100 years old.

Southern California's Metropolitan Transportation Authority has had to raise bus fares, and how many Gold Lines can we build when 13.6 miles cost $900 million? Jobs, homes, malls and recreation increasingly are scattered. Neither rails nor buses can serve many outlying and cross-town areas, which is why we depend on cars.

Clearly we need something better.

Now, imagine a car that does not need gasoline, oil changes, a driver, even roads. That car exists today in the United States and Britain. Versions of it are on the drawing boards in other countries.

Think of it as a personal, driverless taxi. The first operating prototype in the U.S. has been supported with private money. It is called Skyweb Express and can be viewed on the Internet. You can ride it at the company's facility outside Minneapolis. The Ultra system, funded by the European Union, is now being built in Cardiff, Wales, where it soon will be open to riders. These and other ideas can be found at

None of these ideas have received any government support. Skyweb, which is furthest along in development, needs only $15 million to go into full-scale testing. For the cost of one mile of light rail -- $62 million -- the MTA could support full-scale testing of two or three promising ideas.

Take Skyweb as an example. This urban car operates on a network of narrow overhead monorails just three feet wide. The network is supported by small columns and can go over sidewalks, streets or open ground. The vehicles operate on demand. They will wait for you at the station, and the trips are nonstop. You choose your destination on a touch screen, then request to travel alone or with others. It can hold up to four.

The system is cost-effective, even with a single rider. Because the vehicles are computer-controlled, there would be few accidents. There would be stations close to homes, work and shops and major attractions.

Communities could reduce the amount of land given over to parking and roads. As an on- demand system, it can operate around the clock and still make a profit. It uses less electricity than any current transit system. It can be put into place quickly. A city block would be disturbed for only two days -- one to put in the footings for the columns and one to raise the columns and the monorail. It would also be possible for developers, shopping malls, industrial complexes and universities to build their own systems and connect them to the network.

Until we have a system that is right for dispersed 21st century cities, one that is superior to the automobile in convenience and accessibility, we can spend billions and still have the same or worse traffic problems tomorrow.

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