Innovation in the Transportation Realm

ULTra station at Heathrow Airport

by James A. Bacon

If anything can possibly save the United States from looming fiscal, economic and environmental calamity it is the human species’ remarkable capacity for innovation. Innovation has been sparse in the transportation arena, one of the major subjects of study here on Bacon’s Rebellion, but not entirely absent. Today’s post focuses on two innovations — one, the concept of urban light transport, which combines elements of autonomous vehicles with mass transit, and the other, the concept of “neighbor-to-neighbor” car sharing.

The Urban Light Transport (ULTra) system consists of small, lightweight, computer-driven electric vehicles running on slender, special-purpose guideways. Passengers board four-seat vehicles that can go anywhere on the system at any time, providing far more flexibility than mass transit. Working as circulator for office parks, airports, universities, and other major activity centers, ULTra makes carpooling, Metro, and bus more effective, by solving the “last mile problem.”

ULTra PRT, a Bristol, U.K.-based designer of the systems, has installed one at London’s Heathrow Airport with 2.4 miles of guideway, three stations and 21 cars. The company  is engaged in detailed planning for another system in the Golden Temple tourist center in Northern India, and has entered into a feasibility study with Kane Realty Corporation for application in the North Hills mixed-use project in Raleigh, N.C.

Approximate system concept. Red, green, and blue segments roughly follow the three shuttle bus circulator routes shown in the Tysons Strawman report.

The idea has even been examined as an alternative to circulating bus systems in Tysons Corner. (Click on map for more legible image.) The proposed system purports to be faster than cars or buses. A Personal Rapid Transit between the Freddie Mac headquarters and the proposed Metro Stop #2 would take three minutes (including a 20-second wait time). Driving would take 7 minutes, while a circulator bus would take 15 minutes.

The big question, of course, is how much would it cost? Building a system capable of serving most of Tysons would cost many millions. Would Tyson’s well-heeled corporate citizens be willing to pay sufficient fares for the benefit of convenience? I have no idea, but it’s worth looking into. (The ULTra PRT website refers to a 2009 Virginia legislative study, “Viability of PRT for Virginia.”) Ed Risse is a big fan of PRT – indeed, he pointed me to the ULTra PRT website. Perhaps he can expound on the bare details I have provided here.

Now, for another example of innovation — one that requires virtually nothing in the way of capital investment. Relay Rides, based in Boston, improves on the idea of the Zip Car, which allows people to rent automobiles by the hour on those rare occasions in which they need them. I’ll just let Relay Rides tell its own story:

It was a dark and stormy night… also known as “Winter” in Boston. Our Founder Shelby Clark was biking through what seemed like miles and miles of a horrible blizzard: wind blowing every which way, snow seemingly being blown upside-down, nasty stuff! All this just to get to the nearest “shared car” while thousands of other cars sat idle? Why couldn’t those cars, some clearly sitting parked for days, be available to borrow? Eureka! From that snow-driven delirium, RelayRides was born…

Today, RelayRides connects people who need a car with vehicle owners whose rides would otherwise just be sitting idle. Just need to run a few errands? Why deal with car ownership or the hassle of traditional carsharing when RelayRides lets you borrow your neighbors’ cars from as low as $5/hr? Or if you own a car, don’t just let it sit around when you could be making up to $7,000/year loaning it out safely and securely.

Brilliant! The average cost of car ownership runs around $715 monthly; the average cost to Relay Ride members runs around $100. As a bonus, the company contends, the average shared car takes 14 other cars off the road. Does Relay Rides have a sustainable business model? I don’t know, but it is only one of several enterprises — WhipCar (in the U.K.), Spride Share and Getaround that offer essentially the same service. Obviously, someone thinks it holds promise.

If the idea proves feasible in the long run, it will do two great things: (1) save people from the enormous expensive of owning a car they need only occasionally, and (2) take cars off roads and parking spaces, relieving congestion for everyone else. The idea will pay really big dividends when developers and urban planners begin designing communities that integrate neighbor-to-neighbor car sharing from the beginning. (Hat tip to Ray Hyde.)

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10 responses to “Innovation in the Transportation Realm”

  1. Jim – I don’t think this proposal is being actively considered by Fairfax County or the landowners/developers at Tysons. It is being pushed by people who are invested in the technology. There are serious problems finding ways to pay for Dulles Rail Phase II, the $1.5 billion of road improvements needed by 2030, expanded bus service to Tysons, and some type of circulator system, which will most likely be rubber-tire based (buses anyone?). The circulator system has big right-of-way problems too. To be really successful, the circulator needs dedicated rights-of-way, which, in turn, require the donation of more land by the landowners since VDOT has stated no traffic lanes can be taken out of service. All existing and planned lanes are needed to keep traffic going — so to speak. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that finding ways to put sidewalks within the TOD areas of each station is a more pressing problem today than this personal rapid transit proposal.
    Relay Rides, on the other hand, seems more realistic. But I would still bet on Zip Cars first.

  2. Groveton Avatar

    I took my first Zip car trip from Cambridge, MA to an outlying suburb and back. Very interesting, It worked pretty darn well.

    The share cars sound good too. Here in Virginia you should be able to request a car with a loaded pistol in the glove compartment. You know, just in case.

  3. the “gotcha” for per-use personal mobility (zip car, et al) is liability insurance. if you are going to drive a car – even if you don’t own one – what happens if you hit someone and seriously injure or kill them?

    I note that last time I rented.. you could sign the waiver but the company renting has no idea how much insurance coverage you have (or not).

    Perhaps Groveton knows otherwise… since he travels a lot.

  4. Darrell Avatar

    The issue is these are personal cars, not some company. Are owners really going to rent out their vehicles at less than operating cost, and suffer bad stuff from their insurance because of more miles on the road?

  5. Groveton Avatar


    My company has liability insurance for employees traveling on company business. Therefore, we advise them to sign the waiver. However, if I were traveling without liability insurance I would not sign the waiver … which means the rental costs more.

    I did ask about insurance with the Zip Car. I was told by the guy who rented the car that you had to have proof of insurance when you got your Zip Car account. This may have just been collision. I didn’t ask.

  6. Relay rides provides the insurance while the vehicle is rented.

    Whether it is rented below cost does’t matter all that much, since it is a privately owned vehicle with sunk costs anyway. Anything you get over and above the margianl maintenance and use costs just defers some of your fixed costs.

    I do not know how the rental rates are determined. And of course you would hate to get your car back and find condoms in the back seat and roaches in the ash tray.

  7. PRTNewsCenter Avatar

    FYI, ULTra is not responsible for the Abu Dhabi or South Korea PRT projects. Abu Dhabi is 2getthere’s Masdar PRT, South Korea is POSCO Steel’s Vectus PRT for Suncheon.

    1. Thanks for the info. I’ll make the correction in the original post.

      1. Glad to help! Incidentally, the Virginia report is linked here:

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