Mountain View Voice

News - March 21, 2014

Council reverses course on pod car idea

Time has not arrived for yet-to-be-proven technology

by Daniel DeBolt

Mountain View officials may like the pod car concept, but don't mistake them for angel investors. After several years of not getting off the ground on its own, the City Council decided not to help fund a pod car system that council members endorsed in 2010 as a potential cure for traffic congestion.

Council members at the March 18 meeting made strong comments against potentially allowing Mountain View's streets — in a route between the downtown train station and Google headquarters — to be a test site for SkyTran, the NASA Ames-based company developing a system to float automated pods on electro-magnetic overhead rails. It's a technology that has yet to be proven but whose advocates claim has the capacity of several freeway lanes and would cost much less than a light rail system.

"It's an R&D project," said council member Jac Siegel. "I've participated in too many (research and development) projects that went nowhere. I've been talking to them 3 to 4 years. They haven't sold a project and that makes me nervous. If it were viable, people would be beating their doors down."

Council member Ronit Bryant said she didn't want Mountain View to serve as a test case.

"We do not have any direction from our residents that pods hanging from the sky going to and from downtown is our solution to this (traffic) problem," said Bryant. "This is really premature. The proof of concept should happen at NASA Ames."

Self-described "pod car guy" and council member Mike Kasperzak was the last member still advocating for pod cars by the end of the meeting. He had called on the council to approve $75,000 from the city's Shoreline Fund to go towards a U.S. Department of Transportation-led development program for the technology. Kasperzak said DOT officials wanted to see that businesses and cities were interested in the concept.

"There's a feeling the city manager needs to be there to negotiate with the secretary (of transportation), understanding that they're going to be asking for something" in terms of funding, Kasperzak said. "All you got to do is look at DARPA and others like that to see the government does do R&D."

Kasperzak said SkyTran would not be the only company involved in the program but council members zeroed in on it, as the company has made big claims.

"I am not interested in committing myself to technology that isn't there and has a carrying capacity that I find hard to believe," Bryant said.

Other pod car companies (also known as automated transit networks and personal rapid transit) exist and have technology that is proven, such as ULTra,with a system that has been operating at Heathrow Airport since 2009. But the carrying capacity appears to be much less than what SkyTran promises.

Bryant said she went online to find concrete examples of such systems and found a report written by the city of San Jose for a system serving San Jose Airport and Diridon Caltrain station. "They thought the carrying capacity wasn't there to do just that, and that was in 2012," Bryant said.

"If we send our city manager to Washington D.C. it looks like we've bought into it," Bryant said. In effect, the city would be saying, "'Yes, we will be the test case.' I am not interested in being the test case."

In 2010 it was estimated by city officials that an 8.5-mile-long pod car system connecting downtown to Google and Moffett Field with 24 stations would cost between $60 million and $130 million.

Several council members said they would be for such a system if several major Mountain View companies were interested in it.

Vice Mayor John McAlister said he had been told, "This is not the type of venture people put money into." He suggested it would be an ideal task for the city's Transportation Management Association — a newly created group of major Mountain View companies that includes Google — dedicated to managing traffic congestion and sharing employee shuttle services. "That would be an excellent group of people to put into it," McAlister said.

No companies have come forward to offer support for pod cars since 2010, not even Google, whose founder Larry Page said in 2009 that he once wanted to build such a system for the University of Michigan.

"I'm not willing to support something that doesn't have support from corporations out there," said Mayor Chris Clark.

A Google representative suggested Tuesday night that the city partner with Google to study a range of alternatives for reducing North Bayshore traffic "to get people biking, carpooling and using transit today."

Google has touted its self-driving car technology as a way to solve traffic problems.

Council members have already taken a position that Google must come up with ways to sharply decrease the percentage of its employees who drive to work if it is to be allowed to develop new office buildings in North Bayshore. Council members are considering zoning to allow 3.4 million square feet of additional office space north of Highway 101 — space that would accommodate 15,000 to 20,000 new employees who would have to commute, as no significant housing development is planned within walking distance.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

Comments

Posted by CommonSense, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 21, 2014 at 9:41 pm

The real answer to reducing traffic AND making housing more affordable is to stop ALL new office space in North Bayshore and instead build LOTS of housing there.

That helps keep housing more affordable, and the people most likely to live there are ones who work in the area, which will reduce cross-town and freeway traffic.


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