The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


The Problem with "Mass" Transit


Light and heavy rail are expensive, inflexible alternatives to the automobile. It's time to consider a 21st-century solution to mobility in New Urban Regions: Personal Rapid Transit.




Advocates of Business As Usual like to point out that existing shared-vehicle systems (aka, “mass transit”) are not providing functional access and mobility for the vast majority of the citizens in Virginia or anywhere else in the United States. This “failure of public transit” is always one of the first excuses cited to justify dumping vast sums of money on roadway systems that support private vehicles.


Yet it is clear that private vehicles (aka, Autonomobility via cars, vans and pickups, SUVs and trucks) do not provide functional mobility and access for most of the residents of New Urban Regions, where over 85 percent of the citizens now live and work.


To make matters worse, under current conditions roadways (aka, private-vehicle support systems) are driving the expansion of unsustainable human settlement patterns. The crisis of New Urban Region immobility grows worse every year. Building more roads exacerbates the problem. (See “Regional Rigor Mortis,” June 6, 2005.) 


The “failure” of shared-vehicle systems has little to do with the design of the systems themselves. The “failure” is the result of an imbalance between transport system capacity and travel demand – especially in shared-vehicle system station-areas. This reality does not stop supporters of Business As Usual from using the “failure” as an excuse to promote whatever non-solution, or semi-solution makes them and their clients richest, fastest.


Even if there were a concerted effort to achieve system wide balance between capacity and demand, there is still an imperative to create Balanced (Alpha) Communities because Balanced Communities will result in fewer, shorter vehicle trips. (See “Balanced Communities,” August 23, 2005.)  


This Fundamental Change is necessary also to reduce the energy consumption of the existing shared-vehicle system options. In other words the “failure” of shared-vehicle systems is more complex and a solution is important than generally understood.


Not only are the existing transport systems not providing access and mobility but even if they were, energy consumption per passenger mile for both shared-vehicle systems and for private vehicles is not sustainable.



These facts indicate a pressing need for new thinking in the field of shared-vehicle systems. Many suggest that this new thinking will come from advocates of “advanced transit” systems. The “solution” that is most often mentioned is “Personal Rapid Transit” or PRT. (See End Note One.)


Since the early 80s when we first learned about PRT from Jerry Kieffer, S/PI has been a supporter of the basic PRT concept. (See “Rail to Dulles Realities,” Jan. 5, 2004; “Time to Fundamentally Rethink METRO,” Oct. 18, 2004; and “There is Still A Chance” a Bacon's Rebellion Blog post of April 2, 2006, which is reproduced with minor editing as End Note Two.)


There was much consternation among PRT supporters following the Raytheon/Rosemont, Ill., PRT debacle that played out in the 1990s. We and others have been heartened by recent news concerning planned and potential PRT systems in Great Britain and elsewhere in the European Union.


A recent email suggests that we have not been paying close enough attention to the details of PRT advocacy and to the future of “mass transit.” The Advanced Transit Association (ATA) was founded in 1976 by supporters of PRT and related transport technology. On May Day, we received the following message from a member of ATA about PRTs:


“A new paper entitled “The Case for Personal Rapid Transit (PRT)” is now  available: It is 8 pages and is well illustrated.” (Editor's Note: The link no longer functions and has been removed.)


The brief “white paper” written by Dr. Joerg Schweizer, a professor from the University of Bologna, is well done and worthy of a careful read by all those interested in mobility and access.


In the larger context of creating functional human settlement patterns, the PRT white paper raises this question:


If PRT is so great, why after 30 years is there nothing of substance on the ground except the five-stop, three-decade-old system in Morgantown, W.V., (University of West Virginia), and the now abandoned Raytheon-bungled Rosemont project in Illinois? (See End Note Three.)


The white paper’s “Preface” and the introductory section titled “Current Urban Transportation Issues” provides a PRT advocate’s view of why existing transport systems are not working. (See End Note Four.) The text provides useful data on conditions in the United States and the European Union.


The second section is titled, “The Characteristics of PRT.” We start here to outline the possible reasons why recent and current advocacy of PRT systems – and fundamental evolution of shared-vehicle systems in general – have not been and are not likely to be successful without Fundamental Changes. We also provide suggestions for integrating the strengths of PRT into a more comprehensive strategy for providing functional and energy-efficient mobility and access in New Urban Regions.


The order in which the problems with PRT advocacy are addressed below will give a reader not conversant with PRTs an understanding of the topic.




The ATA white paper lists seven “characteristics” of PRT systems. Because the heading lists a number of informed pre-circulation reviewers from around the First World, it is fair to conclude that this well-considered list of characteristics also might be thought of as "the rules" -- the requirements to be considered a PRT system. Here is the list from the white paper:


1. Small, fully automated electric vehicles (i.e. without drivers).


2. Small guideways that can be elevated above ground, at or near ground, or underground.


3. Vehicles captive to guideways and reserved exclusively for them.


4. Vehicles available for use by individuals singly, or in small groups traveling together by choice. These vehicles can be made available for service 24 hours a day, if required.


5. Vehicles able to use all guideways and stations on a fully connected ("integrated") PRT network.


6. A direct origin-to-destination service, without need to transfer or stop at intervening stations (i.e. "nonstop" service) within a whole network, not just down a corridor.


7. A service available on demand rather than on fixed schedules.

Now, let’s rearrange the seven PRT characteristics into their order of priority from most important to least important/problematic:


6. A direct origin-to-destination service, without need to transfer or stop at intervening stations (i.e. "nonstop" service) within a whole network, not just down a corridor.


Pure physics is what makes PRT “better” than 19th century/early 20th century shared-vehicle systems (heavy rail, light rail, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), bus, commuter rail, et. al.) is pure physics.


Physics 101: Stopping and starting wastes time and energy unless one wants to get off the vehicle. Going fast to make up the time lost in acceleration/deceleration plus in-station dwell time for others to get on and off uses energy at exponential rates when compared to travel at a steady speed. This is pure tortoise-and-hare theory and practice.


Here is a real world example: A modest pace of 30 to 40 miles-per-hour would get a PRT vehicle from Dulles Airport to Capital Hill with no stops in 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the route. The METRO Orange line extension to Dulles would take three times as long because the METRO would make 25 +/- stops even though heavy rail technology is capable of peak speeds three times faster than the PRT. A passenger heading from Washington Dulles Airport to the Core of the National Capital would sit in eight +/- stations before getting to the Beltway in Virginia.


The start/stop problem can be overcome by building extra track and sidings to run “express” trains that skip stops (e.g. New York), building two heavy rail systems with complementary capacity and station spacing (e.g. Paris – Metro and RER), building new lines with greater distance between stops (e.g. London’s new Jubilee Line) or integrating a number of different systems (e.g. Toronto, Vienna, Stockholm). PRT advocates favor the latter but, as we will demonstrate, that may be less effective than alternative approaches. Note that all these strategies to overcome the start/stop problem require transfers from one vehicle to another to reach all stations on the system.


Physics 102: Vehicles that move at slower speeds can be lighter, cheaper and safer than vehicles that are designed to go faster. Just as important, the superstructure/ infrastructure is less costly to build. Cost per passenger mile for a PRT is a fraction of heavy/fast/stop/start systems, especially Heavy Rail but also Light Rail, Commuter Rail and Bus Rapid Transit.


Physics 103: A Network rather than corridor-line-haul routing is key. Think of the flexibility of moving packets on the Internet vs sending large files down a single wire. The Network also addresses the critical “transfer” problem, which along with the “waiting” problem, are the two major physical and psychological barriers to citizens embracing shared-vehicle system use. More on Networks below.


7. A service available on demand rather than on fixed schedules.


“Waiting” for a vehicle to arrive, along with “transfers,” as noted above, which also frequently involves another “wait,” is a killer for all shared-vehicle systems. This is especially true in a society that has been spoiled by extensive use of private-vehicle mobility systems – even if the immediate gratification of a private-vehicle system is available only to able-bodied citizens at the top of the economic food chain.


4b. These vehicles can be made available for service 24 hours a day, if required.


Running 24/7 is also key for flexible use and maximizing use of infrastructure. (See “For People Only” below.)


4a. Vehicles available for use by individuals singly, or in small groups traveling together by choice.


Privacy and the ability to travel in small, self-selected groups also are key for those spoiled by private-vehicle mobility systems. Demand pricing can enhance the attractiveness of sharing PRT vehicles. Slug lines, publicos, jitneys and spontaneous curbside taxi sharing suggest that “small groups by choice” is an important way to achieve the efficiency of shared- vehicles as compared to private vehicles.


(NB: We have separated Rule 4 into parts 4A and 4B because of the emphasis in Rule 4A on “small” that will be addressed below.)


5. Vehicles able to use all guideways and stations on a fully connected ("integrated") PRT network.


The concept of a “Network” in contrast to line-haul corridors is, as noted above, very important. The flexibility of routing packets over the Internet vs. running them down a single wire from point A to point B is a powerful metaphor. PRT advocates like to stress the ability to serve small-volume destinations with non-stop service.  That is a good thing.


However, with the emphasis on “small” in Rule 4A. and the characteristic of every vehicle being able to access every station in Rule 5, the TRUE BELIEVER problem, related to the “purity” of a PRT system discussed below, becomes a factor.


Perhaps a system in a specific New Urban Region would work most efficiently if all links and all stations did not have to accommodate all the vehicles that were able to use the spine of the system. The integration of line-haul capacity and PRT characteristics is illustrated by the line running from Dulles Airport to the Anacostia River sketched out in End Note Three.


Seamless integration between service to high-volume station-areas and to lower intensity areas outside the stations is another example. A Dulles Airport passenger may have a destination in Reston Town Center more than a mile distant from a Reston Avenue Station situated above the the Toll Road. A PRT network could cover all parts of Reston because rational density, 10 persons per acre at the Alpha Community scale, makes every neighborhood accessible from Dulles.


Likewise, a Dulles passenger may want to go to one of the lower density office parks or residential areas far from any of the four Tysons Corner spine stations where higher capacity cars have access. Note that speed is not a question here. All riders could get to the desired station at the same speed, without stopping and without a “transfer” or “wait.”


Now we come to the first three “characteristics” in the original PRT advocates list. These criteria raise the most significant barriers to effective application of the PRT concept.

1. Small, fully automated electric vehicles (i.e. without drivers).


Small is beautiful, and perhaps most PRT vehicles should be thought of as “small.” But do all the vehicles have to be the same size? Not if the network is designed properly. Heavy vehicles capable of carrying large numbers of passengers would be limited to designated corridors; smaller lighter vehicles could travel on parts of the network with light infrastructure. If two or three people want to go from Dulles Airport to a place such as Annandale, off the main network  spine, they would take a four-seater. If 10 people want to go Bethesda, they might choose a larger vehicle with at least 10 seats that cost less and hauled more people. Variable pricing would sort out the demand and the desire for privacy vs. efficiency. 

A range of vehicle sizes could accommodate atypical “game night” traffic anywhere on the spine of the system. It is unlikely that there would be crowds going to or from an Annandale on the Network unless someone was silly enough to build a stadium there.     


Horizontal Elevators in airports and the Docklands Light Railway in London have shown that automated vehicles work just fine for 10-, 20- or-30 passenger vehicles and in “trains” with multiple cars. Even cars of this size that can be quite light if they do not need to go fast to make up time wasted in repeated stop / starts. (See End Note Five.)


There is no reason why the larger vehicles could not hold 30 passengers each and be linked in three- or four-car trains as they are in some Horizontal Elevator applications. This configuration would work well for the Dulles Airport to Anacostia River example in End Note Six. It would get large groups from Dulles Airport to the new Supreme Court Complex on the Anacostia River or the new Learner Field near the Anacostia River far faster than METRO could.


Removing the need for drivers is a key to keeping costs down and safety up. The most potentially disastrous wreck on METRO in recent memory happened when a driver fell asleep and backed an empty train into (and onto) an occupied one.


2. Small guideways that can be elevated above ground, at or near ground, or underground.


Small (light/inexpensive) guideways are a key to keeping down costs in places where there is low demand and thus low revenue. Small guideways that are somewhat less intrusive may be useful when trying to integrate links of a PRT system into existing urban fabric. However, over-the-street alignments have a limited appeal even if light and airy. When designing the renewal of urban fabric, the mobility system should be integrated into the design of the new fabric so the system need not run over a “street” or confined public Openspace. With rare exception, it is not possible to make an overhead system attractive except to the engineer who designs it.   


The key point is that in places where demand is higher and there is no premium for light, less costly, lower volume service – like the median of the Dulles Airport Access Road – “small” may not be best. On these links heavier infrastructure that will carry capacity vehicles may be needed. There is nothing inherent in the PRT non-stop/ off-line-station concept that forecloses this possibility.


8. Vehicles captive to guideways and reserved exclusively for them.


This consideration may explain the passive rejection of the PRT idea by those who favor private vehicles and those who want to make money from mobility systems. (See the discussion of PRIVATE PAYOLA and PUBLIC PORK below.)


The PRT-like system that Ford Motor Company designed for the Planned New Community we planned for the Weyerhaeuser Corporation in North Carolina just before the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo employed a vehicle that ran on the spine of the system but could access lower density areas. The concept was similar to some Bus Rapid Transit applications, except that it didn’t require a driver and a heavy vehicle capable of high speeds. The “smart cars” by Mercedes Benz and others that are finally making their way to the US market provide a visual prototype.


Private vehicles would give the well-to-do the option of having a special vehicle they could park somewhere remote from their destination until they needed it again. Storage of automobiles in the Core Alpha Communities of New Urban Regions is one of the most costly and disaggregating forces impacting urban fabric. The parking and maneuvering of the private vehicle takes up at least four times as much space as the office of the senior employee who drives it to work.


Differential pricing, a slam dunk in a closed PRT system, could level the playing field. Riders would get the level of privacy that they paid for. HOT lane advocates should love this aspect of PRTs.




This profoundly important and complex topic may have even more impact on the failure to consider PRT systems and other shared-vehicle system innovations than TOO MANY RULES considered above. It is, however, easier to understand this issue after considering PRT system rules in some detail.


“Payola” and “pork” are separate phenomena but are considered under one heading because in the “real world” they are interconnected by the odious phenomenon of excessive political party contributions.


Public Pork


Daniel Hudson Burnham famously suggested with respect to evolving human settlement patterns: “Make not little plans: Little plans have no magic to stir men’s blood.”


Unfortunately, this truism has been interpreted as calling for planning big projects and tall buildings, not creating comprehensive plans for New Urban Region-wide mobility systems or New Urban Region Cores made up of Balanced Communities where there are affordable and accessible dwellings served by functional mobility systems.


Politicians avoid projects with long time frames unless there are campaign contributions involved or there is overwhelming citizen’s support for a project or program.


Campaign contributions come from those who seek to profit from land speculation and from big, expensive payola projects, especially public-private partnerships where there are multiple troughs with guaranteed returns.


Private Payola


No one makes a lot of money from conservation, especially in the short term. In the spheres of energy, natural resources and human settlement patterns, all citizens benefit from conservation in the long run but that does not translate to short term profits.


For this reason there is little support for projects that are Small/Conservative/Simple. There is extensive support for projects that are Big/Consumptive/Complex. (See End Note Six.) This truism applies not only to military hardware contracts. There is no better example than the protracted PRT project in Rosemont, Ill., that the Raytheon Corporation ran into the ground during the 90s. The design team continued to pile on bells and whistles until the proposal collapsed under its own weight. The story is more complex, but participants and observers have confirmed that this summary is apt.


This same phenomenon impacts all shared-vehicle systems. The bigger the project, the higher the cost, the larger the contracts, the larger the commissions for money agents, real estate agents, lawyer agents...


(This issue is explored with respect to extending the METRO Orange Line to Dulles Airport in “Rail to Dulles Realities,” Jan. 5, 2004.)


Payola generates political party contributions and for-hire (aka, think-tank) champions for non-solutions or semi-solutions that make some rich fast.  These projects include private toll roads and HOT lanes.    Payola is a major driving force behind the failure to balance the travel demand generated by human settlement patterns with mobility system capacity reviewed in THE CONCLUSION, below, and will be explored in more detail in a future column.




As important as PORK and PAYOLA are in getting a project designed and started, failure to consider the movement of packages and freight on shared-vehicle systems is probably more important for the long-term effectiveness of a system.


Start with the reality that Balanced Communities are places where the location and balance of jobs/housing/ services/recreation/amenity create environments where citizens need and want to be most of the time. (See “Balanced Communities,” August 23, 2005.)


Even under these conditions, there is still a need for mobility and access to meet the needs and desires of contemporary society. And it is not just people but also goods that need mobility and access.


Even maximizing Telework and other IT marvels still leaves a lot of daily and weekly needs that cannot be sent over a wire. Things like food and clothing, household and hygiene supplies, furniture and bedding, electronic and kitchen equipment, recreational and gardening equipment and supplies. These goods may have intraregional or interregional sources but a PRT system that delivered “the goods” as well as “the people” would help make use of the infrastructure 24-7. With packages and freight network routing and widely dispersed, (walk-to) distribution/ staging areas/drop-off points the system could save billions in transport expenses. It is a rare when the nine households in our Dooryard are not visited 20 times by big Brown, White, Yellow and Red White and Blue trucks in a week.


In the delivery of telecommunications services there is much talk about the “last mile” to get broadband service to the Unit level. For freight and package goods it is the last 1,400 feet or 500 feet.


And what about services? How much more efficient would it be for home, appliance, electronics, pet and personal services to be delivered by a small vehicle that arrives at a nearby station and exits to the street/pathway system and comes to the unit than for trucks and vans to run up and down the highways?


A colleague and I first proposed the use of an island-wide “transit” system to carry people and goods in the late 60's when working for the Puerto Rican Planning Board. Since that time we have seen precious few examples of these applications. There is more fervent enforcement of the separation of people and goods than the separation of church and state. New interregional freight transport schemes have included massively expensive underground vacuum tubes and of course, the “next generation” of the Interstate Highways (aka, “Superhighway Corridors.”) (See “Interstate Crime,” Feb. 28, 2005.) But there are few intraregional ideas for goods and people on shared vehicle systems. PRT applications would be a place to start.




In our experience, PRT advocates may have spent too many hours and worked too hard trying to show how PRT systems could provide mobility and access to settlement patterns that are not transportable because of the physics of mobility and access.


Readers of “The Shape of the Future” columns at Bacon’s Rebellion do not need a briefing on this topic. Others may want to check out “Spinning Data, Spinning Wheels,” Sept. 20, 2004, or “Regional Rigor Mortis,” June 6, 2005, at Bacon's Rebellion. Also see “The Physics of Gridlock.”  (See End Note Seven.)




The email from ATA noted that the white paper was “well illustrated.” There are 11 graphics in the eight-page paper, most of them are small. Several, such as the network diagram, are helpful in communicating the PRT story.


The biggest graphic depicts an isolated office park that would be hell to work in no matter how you got there. Shared-vehicles make synergistically located urban land uses accessible. Isolated office parks are dysfunctional regardless of how one gets to the building.


No one would want to live or work in places depicted by several of the graphics. In fact the “bad” automobile- dependent building with a brick and steel fence and dormant landscaping looks more attractive than some of the “good” images.


Two of the eight graphics are devoted to showing how a lightweight guideway can be installed over a street. What is the first thing a village or neighborhood-scale area does to improve the amenity of the “main street?” It takes down the poles and overhead wires, which are deemed ugly by the vast majority of people taking visual preference surveys. “Els” are widely considered blight generators when located over confined public spaces.


There is no way to make an overhead application of a shared-vehicle system “attractive.” In some cases a short over-the-street segment may be necessary until an alternative is feasible, but it never is a long-term “solution.”


We understand the message PRT advocates want to get across, but this set of graphics does not do the job. More importantly, the fact that PRT advocates believe these graphics are convincing is disturbing.




PRT supporters are a committed and passionate lot. As the RULES outlined above suggest, there may be too much emphasis on the purity of the system and too little on providing mobility and access. It has also been noted that there are several types of PRT systems, each with its own subset of advocates. We expect this column to generate some emails in ALL CAPS –  NO, NO, NO, All the vehicles must be small, uniform and never leave our system. (See End Note Eight.)




Finally, the PRT idea seems to be a magnet and playground for loonies and shills for Business As Usual. Someone recently told us they had read a note from a detractor suggesting that PRT would not work because prospective riders would not want to get into a vehicle in which there is physical evidence of the last occupants fornicating in the “back seat.” For every one of these “problems” there is a response as suggested by in End Note Six.


At some point one gets tired of beating down these straw villains.




Aside from the confusing Neural Linguistic Frameworks triggered by the phrase “mass transit,” what is “wrong” with shared-vehicle systems? Why has there been so little evolution of shared vehicles since 1920, even as the need to functionally serve urban agglomerations has grown exponentially?


First: Let us be clear that “cause” of the “failure” of existing shared-vehicle systems – Heavy Rail, Light Rail, Bus Rapid Transit, Trams, Bus, Horizontal Elevators, etc. – has little to do with the design of the system. The “failure” is that human settlement patterns in the station areas (and for non-station systems, in the service areas) have not evolved to balance and support the transport system.


New Urban Regions such as Toronto, Vienna and Stockholm that use a variety of system types to match a range of settlement patterns do a better job, but they are not optimum: They do not solve the “transfer” and “wait” problems. (For a glimpse of the anatomy of a failed process to evolve functional station-area settlement patterns see “METRO WEST, 22 YEARS TOO LATE” a posting on Bacon’s Rebellion Blog from March, 28, 2006, which is reproduced with minor editing in End Note Nine.)


There must be a balance between the trip-generation of the human settlement pattern and the transport system capacity. No shared-vehicle (or private-vehicle) system can function efficiently without this balance.


That is why most of the METRO trains leave most of the stations, most of the time, essentially empty. (See “It is time to Fundamentally Rethink METRO,” Oct. 18, 2004.)


Second: Even if existing shared-vehicle systems were better supported by functional settlement patterns, they would consume far more energy than necessary or sustainable. Simply not using fossil fuels directly is not a panacea. Current systems use vast amounts of energy that must come from some source.


Providing mobility takes up between one third and one half of the energy consumed in the United States, depending on how the data is manipulated. A lot of the rest of the energy is used to heat and cool dispersed and inefficient buildings that comprise the human settlement pattern.


One cannot have too much money or conserve too much energy. On a finite planet, if citizens do not find a way to conserve energy far more energy, there will be no money, public or private. This reality suggests the need for:


1.  Balanced Comminutes

2.  Innovation in shared-vehicle systems.


PRT is a place to start looking for innovation but the advocates may be their own worst enemies.     


-- May 15, 2006



End Notes


(1) German and Japanese investigations of MagLev have proven that this technology has less applicability than advocates claimed when first widely discussed in the 1980s.


(2) The following is a slightly edited version of the 2 April 2006 post on the Bacon’s Rebellion Blog titled “THERE IS STILL A CHANCE”:


It is now clear that governance practitioners, land speculators, design-build investors and their agents have moved the status of mobility and access in the northern part of Virginia to the brink of chaos. When Bacon’s Rebellion and the Metro section of WaPo agree, it is time for profound concern. (See 2 April 2006 WaPo story “Fairfax Frets Over Tysons as Dulles Rail Evolves.”)


Disaster can be predicted based on the mix of:

  • Nineteenth century technology

  • Ballooning costs driven by public and private actors trying to load the train with pork and payola

  • A perfect vacuum of regional or subregional plans and planning to balance human settlement patterns with mobility systems

There is still a chance to snatch mobility from the jaws of gridlock. The following three points summarize and slightly revise a sketch plan that would provide mobility and access for the National Capital Subregion. It is based on a plan S/PI outlined for a client several years ago:


 A. Extend the METRO Orange Line from West Falls Church to Tysons Corner. Pay for a substantial part of the cost expansion through long-term leases on the air rights for 150 +/- acres of station-area development at three or four stations over VA Route 123 and VA Route 7. (See “Blueprint for a Better Region: Putting Development in the Right Places.”)


B. Build a 21st century PRT system from Dulles Airport to the Anacostia waterfront. The line would provide service to Reston (three stations with station-area development on platforms with leased air-rights over the DAAR) Tysons Corner (tie to METRO Orange Line) and cross the Potomac to the Massachusetts Ave. Corridor, serving Georgetown, and making a connection North of M Street with a tie to METRO Red and Green lines), Union Station (tie to METRO Red Line, AMTRAK, VRE and MARC), Capitol Hill (tie to METRO Orange and Blue Lines) and South Capital Corridor to Anacostia (tie to METRO Green Line).


C. Build out the changes in METRO and other systems called for in “It Is Time to Fundamentally Rethink METRO,” Oct. 18, 2004.


The alternatives look very bleak as depicted in both Bacon’s Rebellion and WaPo. The very worst prospect for the future of mobility and access is the Python Plan by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. (See “Reality-Based Regionalism,” Oct. 17, 2005.)


(3) The Miami Downtown Circulator, London’s Docklands Light Railway and a number of airport and office park applications of Horizontal Elevators demonstrate the functionality of a number of PRT system components.


(4) The white paper summary of the current reality is “on track” except that it compounds misunderstandings about the function of shared-vehicle systems by parroting the common misconception that a key “problem” is that there is a “limited space in urban areas.” The fact is that there is already too much land devoted to urban land uses –  especially in the United States. The fundamental problem is dysfunctional distribution of those uses, not a lack of land.


(5) If there is concern with the need for “supervision” in big cars, then some who want to ride at a discount pay their way by becoming licensed car monitors with distinctive hats and an instant-message cell phone. Airports avoid this security issue by having numerous uniformed employees riding back and forth all the time on the Horizontal Elevators.


(6) We address this issue and the need to transcend “winner-take-all” economics while preserving a market economy and democracy in Chapters 30, 31 and 32 of "The Shape of the Future."


(7)The Physics of Gridlock” is a bonus PowerPoint program that is included on the CD with the third printing of "The Shape of the Future" available at Bacon’s Rebellion.


(8) We have known Jerry Kieffer for three decades, have met Ed Anderson and Peter Mitchell and corresponded with Steve Raney and Jerry Schneider. All are dedicated advocates of PRT. It has occurred to us that some of them and/or others may be such True Believers as to be inflexible on the application of the core PRT ideas.      


(9) The following is a slightly edited version of the March 28, 2006, post on the Bacon’s Rebellion Blog titled “METRO West – 22 YEARS TOO LATE:”


The second most important thing to understand about the great victory (replanning and rezoning of a mixed use development called METRO West finally approved in March 2006) at the Vienna/Fairfax/GMU METRO station in Virginia is that it is just 22 years late.


The most important thing is that there is still time to make amends, but it will cost a lot more than if the station-area had been intelligently planned 25 years ago.


In the early 1970s the 1960s decision to end the METRO Orange Line at what became known as the Vienna/Fairfax GMU station was reconfirmed. The original decision and the reconfirmation was based on the facts that there were nearly 800 acres of vacant and underutilized land there and that the alternative site (Tysons Corner) was “all built out.” Since that time the 1,500-acre Tysons Corner has intensified by a factor of four. Adding METRO or some other shared-vehicle system to make Tysons Corner functional will cost billions and is predicated on the further doubling of intensity to meet threshold shared-vehicle system standards. (There is a current plan to extend a branch of the Orange Line to Tysons Corner and build four stations as part of the “Rail to Dulles” initiative.)


In the 1970s and early 1980s the Fairfax “comprehensive plan” provided incentives for land assembly to create transit oriented development (long before the term TOD was coined) so that the capacity of the METRO Orange line could be used in both directions in peak periods.


Public agency actions reduced the available vacant land to 100 +/- acres by the time the Orange Line got under construction beyond Ballston. Subdivision recycling projects for the METRO West site and others surfaced as the opening of the station neared.


To thwart the Virginia Center plan on still-vacant land, the county’s “comprehensive plan” was amended to strip out the incentives for parcel consolidation. Project after project with METRO supporting patterns and densities of land-use have been turned down by the County.


The main players on the public side for this activity were former county supervisor and now state Del. Jim Scott, D-Merrifield, and former county supervisor, county board chairperson and recently appointed Secretary of the Commonwealth Kate Hanley.


But for their efforts, there would already be the sort of development that the market documents is in the greatest demand. The Orange line would be carrying more people in the off-peak direction, it would be taking in more revenue and would come closer to being part of a functional shared-vehicle system. Hundreds of acres now must be recycled at great cost and disruption to evolve a real METRO-oriented enclave.


There is a silver lining: 45 +/- acres of land in public ownership lies at the heart of this area and is being wasted in road rights-of-way, surface parking and deck parking with no urban uses on the top. To make matters worse there is no provision to add them without tearing down the garages.


This 45 acres could be decked over and at modest density replace the employment uses at AOL/World Com/ Wal*Mart-in-the-Weeds in Loudoun County and with the adjacent 400 +/- acres within one half mile of the METRO platform create a village-scale station-area urban agglomeration with a relative balanced of jobs/housing/ services/recreation/amenity.


It would have cost so much less to do it right the first time. We would have saved thousands of acres of Countryside and provided the sort of places the market demonstrates that people want to live, work and play. Will METRO West perform as advertised? We will all have to wait and see. The current project has one hand tied behind its back by the pattern of land use on the rest of the 800 acres that were part of the original reason to put the METRO station in this location.


Any analysis of the project will be hamstrung by the failure to create a comprehensive plan for the station area and to develop an intelligent vocabulary to describe the organic components of the station-area settlement pattern. (See “Words Matter” and our Dec 2005/Jan 2006 three part series on Vocabulary at


There are three overarching lessons from this experience to date:


1. The loss from the scrapping of an intelligent plan to capitalize on the METRO potential at Vienna/Fairfax/GMU that evolved from the late '60s to the early '80s can never be fully recovered.


2. The lost of opportunity due to the refusal of the public agencies (especially between 25 and 20 years ago) to allow the market to reflect the potential of METRO access effects not just this municipality but the entire Virginia portion of the National Capital Subregion.


3. The loss of potential public revenue due to the failure to create public-private partnerships to assure public benefit from the public expenditure on the METRO would pay for much of the needed public infrastructure and services needed to support an urban enclave.


The record shows there were many of us who spoke out on these public agency failures at the time.  














Note to Readers: As noted in our column, “The Devil's Dance,” Jan. 3, 2006, EMR has taken a sabbatical and will not return with regular columns until the legislature and the governor stop dancing for and with the Devil. Those who have been elected to lead the Commonwealth insist on ignoring the fact that more money, whatever the source, will not improve mobility and access without Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns. At some point those in the Devil’s Dance will come to an interim conclusion/stalemate concerning transport funding. Until that happens, it is frustrating and counterproductive to address human settlement pattern issues and ways to create mobility and access. During the sabbatical we are working on PROPERTY DYNAMICS, on “Use and Management of Land” and on a Glossary for use in discussing human settlement pattern issue at Bacon’s Rebellion.


Ed Risse and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


Read his profile here.