Is the U.S. Out of Love with Cutting-Edge Transit?

It feels like it. But there is plenty of innovative thinking shaping the future of public transportation. You just need to look elsewhere to find it

Will personal rapid transit -- or "pods" -- ever come to the United States?
Will personal rapid transit -- or "pods" -- ever come to the United States? Feedloader (Clickability)

Fifty years ago, we sure did love the monorail.  It was sleek, shiny, seemingly safe and, not surprisingly, a centerpiece of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.  Two years later, it starred again at the New York World’s Fair, as newsreel video gushed about its being the “train of the future.” Yes, as America moved forward into the 21st century, this was going to be our ride.

But, as we know, it didn’t work out that way.  To get a sense, though, of how much the thrill is gone–and not just with the monorail, but all public transportation–consider that next week the House of Representatives could vote on a bill that would change how mass transit projects are funded, making them easy targets for budget cutters.

That’s not to say that people aren’t developing innovative ways to help us get around.  We just need to look elsewhere now for the best examples.

Beat this, Superman!

High-speed trains epitomize how much some in the U.S. have fallen out of love with cutting-edge transit.  Not that long ago, states would have fought furiously for federal funding to help provide faster trains connecting their main cities.  Last year governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida turned it down. And the one state where it would seem to have the best shot–California, where a high-speed line would run from San Francisco to Los Angeles–Gov. Jerry Brown, its biggest booster, is clearly facing an uphilll battle.

But in China (Isn’t it always China lately?) it’s a very different story. The country already has the world’s fastest rail line–the train running from Wuhan, in the heart of central China, to Guangzhou, on the southeastern coast, hit a top speed of 245 miles per hour in trials and averages 194 miles per hour on its trips. By 2020, bullet trains will connect all of China’s major cities and within the next five years, more high-speed rail likely will be added in China than the rest of the world combined.

This time it’s personal

They’re technically known as Personal Rapid Transit, or PRTs. But most people call them “pod cars.” Which makes sense since they really are electric pods with wheels.  No driver, no steering wheel, no accelerator.  They show up when requested, you and as many as three others get in, you press the start button and you’re off to your pre-programmed destination. They’ve been in use at London’s Heathrow Airport since last summer  and a bit longer to transport people around Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. Other PRT systems are being developed in South Korea and North India, the latter to provide easy access to the Golden Temple, the holy Sikh shrine in Amristar. Best bet for the first one in the U.S. is in San Jose, California, which has already committed $4 million for a study to see if it makes sense to have pod cars serving the city’s airport.

Cars standing by

In Paris, they’re taking the ZipCar concept up a notch. Through a system called AutoLib that launched last fall, people can rent a tiny electric “Bluecars,” much as you would a bike in one of the bike-sharing programs you see now in a lot of  U.S. cities. Once you register and get an ID badge, you can pick up a car at one of the 1,200 parking spaces–complete with charging stations–around the city.  You simply use your badge to unlock the vehicle.  The promise is that you can drive up to 150 miles on a single charge. They rent for roughly $13 a day or $20 a week. City officials say they hope to have 5,000 of the little cars buzzing around Paris’ streets by next year.

The real magic bus

The world’s first full-size, all-electric buses are also on the street and yes, they’re in China. Hunan Province has ordered 1,000 of them, but Chinese automaker BYD, which makes the silent vehicle, has big plans to export them around the world.  Hertz is already using one of the BYD buses at Los Angeles International Airport, and the Chinese company hopes to sell some to both Los Angeles and Chicago. The bus, which also has nine solar panels on its roof, can reportedly travel almost 190 miles on one charge.  If you have any doubts about this venture, note that both Warren Buffet and Bill Gates traveled to China for the launch of the new bus last fall.  Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway owns 10 percent of BYD.

This way up…and down

Sometimes what a city needs is a good escalator. That’s right, an escalator, and I’m not talking about some dinky moving stairway at the mall, but one that climbs hillsides like the old funiculars used to do. The world’s largest outdoor, covered escalator system started moving people up and down a Hong Kong hill in the mid-1990s and it has since transformed the section of the city known as Mid-Levels.   And last December, the city of Medellin in Colombia, opened a six-section, 1,200-foot-long escalator that climbs into one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Residents used to have walk up stairs equivalent to ascending a 28-story building.  Now what used to be a 30-minute hike takes them not much more than five minutes.

An update: Nevada announced last week that it has finalized regulations for driverless cars. (No, you can’t drink and “drive.”) Google has been lobbying the state to have its highways become the proving ground for the Google robot cars I wrote about last summer.

Video bonus: Take a ride in one of Heathrow’s pod cars in this clip from Reuters.

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