Someday in Mountain View's not-too-distant future, driverless electric vehicles could whisk passengers between the downtown train station, NASA Ames and Shoreline businesses such as Google.
Advanced Transit Systems, a British company with a Palo Alto office, hopes to turn Mountain View's leaders on to the idea, which is being considered by various other Bay Area cities and is scheduled to operate for the first time next spring at London's Heathrow Airport. The company's personal rapid transit system, or PRT, uses computer-controlled, battery-powered electric vehicles that ride on dedicated cement pathways.
The Mountain View City Council's Transportation Subcommittee is set to discuss the idea on Wednesday, Sept. 16 at 6:30 p.m. in the Plaza Conference Room on the second floor of City Hall.
Advanced Transit Systems, or ATS, has outlined a possible route system that includes one route starting at the downtown transit station, heads down Stierlin Road and over the Shoreline Boulevard/Highway 101 overpass, and ends at the Googleplex's front door -- a 5-minute trip all told.
Steve Raney, an ATS employee who works in Palo Alto, says he has used input from Google and NASA Ames to develop a route for 15 miles of PRT track, or "guideway," and 40 stations in and around Mountain View's Shoreline and Moffett Field areas.
Raney said one Google employee with a background in transportation planning told him that "In five or 10 years we'll have gridlock" at the Highway 101/85 interchange, which feeds onto Shoreline Boulevard.
"We'll need an alternative," Raney quoted the Google employee as saying. "The proposal to connect Google, NASA and Caltrain makes sense as an alternative. PRT will be like a dam breaking. We're all frustrated with current transit in the area."
Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga discussed the plans with Raney and said it sounded "interesting."
"We've talked about building light rail out to Bayshore area," Abe-Koga said. "If we are serious about that we should be looking at this. It could be cheaper and more practical."
Abe-Koga said she is curious to see how San Jose progresses with its plans for a PRT system at San Jose airport. That city's transportation director is scheduled to take a tour of the Heathrow system -- which ATS has dubbed "Ultra" -- sometime this week, Raney said.
Raney said his company is making a similar push in Palo Alto for an Ultra system around the Stanford Research Park, where a market study showed a dramatic decrease in car use and an increase in use of buses and trains, which would be connected to the system.
If comments made during Mountain View's General Plan hearings by Google and other property owners in North Bayshore are any indication, such a transit system may be necessary to support the growth of Google and the NASA Ames Research Park. Ames may soon house several tall buildings and a major university campus for the University of California and the Foothill-De Anza Community College District.
Another company, Unimodal Inc., is building prototypes of an overhead "maglev" PRT system as a tenant at NASA Ames, but has not approached the city with any proposals.
Raney said his goal is to present the general idea of PRT to the city, and not necessarily sell them on his company's specific product. He said he hopes the city will take bids from the 30 or so PRT start-up companies worldwide. Raney says ATS is the largest among the PRT companies, with 40 employees.
If ATS were to build its Ultra system in Mountain View, Raney estimates it would cost $60 to 128 million for the 8.5-mile portion connecting downtown to the area around Google (colored orange in the map).
The tracks would also run to Shoreline Amphitheatre, over Stevens Creek to NASA Ames and south to the Moffett Business Park near Sunnyvale, among other places.
With four seconds between each vehicle, one Ultra guideway can transport 3,456 people per hour with four passengers in each vehicle. A bottleneck to consider is the number of berths (parking spots) at a station because each berth can only move 576 people per hour.
The system costs roughly $7 million to $15 million per mile to build, and the six-foot-wide cement paths can be constructed at a speed of about one mile per month by a four-person crew.
Google co-founder Larry Page may be a fan of the idea, according to his commencement speech at the University of Michigan on May 2.
"When I was here at Michigan, I wanted to build a personal rapid transit system on campus to replace the buses," Page told the crowd. "It was a futuristic way of solving our transportation problem. Many things that people labor hard to do now, like cooking, cleaning and driving, will require much less human time in the future. That is, if we have a healthy disregard for the impossible and actually build new solutions."