Before there was Hyperloopism, there was the gadgetbahn and the Cyberspace Technodream.
Finance and Commerce, a Minnesota business newspaper, recently reported on the demise of a company known as Taxi 2000. The company has been on life-support for some time, and the story marking its formal passing will be little noticed, which is a shame, because it will seem so familiar.
Taxi 2000 promoted what was known as Personal Rapid Transit, a system of small, automated electric vehicles that would run on separated guide rails. The company founder, J. Edward Anderson, describes how the idea evolved.
In the 1890s, planners in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago concluded that the only way to avoid congestion was to go to a new level – either elevated or underground. They did both and at great expense deployed the technology then available – large, manually driven vehicles that stopped at all stations and resulted in large, unsightly, very expensive guideways. In 1953, two transportation engineers, Donn Fichter and Ed Haltom, working independently, both envisioned that if the large, heavy vehicles were replaced by many very small, light-weight vehicles, the weight and cost of the guideway could be markedly reduced – we found by a factor of at least 20:1. They knew that these small vehicles would have to be automatically controlled; and that to obtain sufficient throughput, the stations would have to be placed on bypass guideways, just like stops off a freeway. This is PRT.
PRT was promoted in Minnesota by people who disliked investing big bucks in public transportation, and thought that PRT would be faster, cheaper and private. Taxi 2000’s system, Skyweb Express, was built out of pods that could carry two or three people, running on elevated guideways. Brian Martucci in the F&C writes that “they would cost no more than $20 million per mile to implement — one-third the cost of light rail transit — and dramatically reduce traffic congestion.” He notes some of the people behind it:
In 2003, state Rep. Mark Olson, R-Big Lake, and state Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, sponsored a bill to fund a $6 million, 2,200-foot demonstration loop. The following year, the bill died without a vote. Taxi 2000 was a lodestar for transit skeptics outside the metro. The company’s most prominent boosters represented exurban, car-dependent communities. Olson [was] a notorious opponent of traditional public transportation.
That’s why we followed it closely on TreeHugger; even back in 2008 we worried about how these fancy new technologies were being used to undermine public transportation. Bike and transit activist Ken Avidor called PRT a “cyberspace technodream” and “an infeasible transportation concept with a 30-year record of controversy and failure. PRT is little more than a stalking horse for the highway construction industry and individuals belonging to anti-rail transit groups.” He also had another great term for it; Martucci writes:
Avidor said real-world transportation issues are best addressed with iterative solutions, like better bus service and safer bike lanes. He sees PRT as one of many iterations of the “gadgetbahn”: transportation pipe dreams, like Elon Musk’s hyperloop, whose seductive simplicity masks potentially intractable challenges. “Policymakers use the gadgetbahn to avoid hard realities,” he said.
PRT supporters were not impressed with my writing and gave me a special award for being an ignoramus blogger, “What’s so good (or bad) about Lloyd is that the propaganda stuck in his windpipe is the OLD debunked “Cyberspace Dream” e-fishwrap!”
Today, PRT is dead, but many are chasing little pods that run without guideways, AKA self-driving cars. Or the Hyperloop, which is supposed to replace trains with smaller, cheaper, automated vehicles on separated guideways. Or Elon Musk’s Boring Company, because he hates getting stuck in traffic or taking public transit, so he will tunnel under it all in his cars on skates.
Today, instead of a Cyberspace Technodream, we have Hyperloopism, which I define as “crazy new and unproven technology which nobody is sure will work, that probably isn’t better or cheaper than the way things are done now, and is often counterproductive and used as an excuse to actually do nothing at all.”
I wrote recently that Hyperloopism is the religion of the day, But we have seen this movie before, set in Minneapolis, it was called Personal Rapid Transit, and we know how it ends.