Could investors fund city's transit future?

Council resolution favors general concept of 'personal rapid transit'

A company that has set up shop at NASA Ames Research Park claims its system for automated pod travel could lift Mountain View out of its traffic and public transportation woes -- and the city may not have to spend a dime on it.

So claims Unimodal Inc., which says that for the first city to say yes, it can build its SkyTran system -- small cars or "pods" which move about automatically on a network of rails, heading to their destination at the push of a button -- while getting all of the funding from private investors.

"Investors have told us, bring us a project and we'll finance it," said Robert Baertsch, Unimodal's vice president of software engineering.

Though the jury is still out on the merits of such a system, the City Council has already made a preliminary step in its favor. On Feb. 23, the council unanimously supported "the general concept of an automated personal rapid transit (PRT) system in Mountain View" after being lobbied by another PRT company -- one not located at Moffett -- called ULTra.

The city is considering a PRT system from the downtown train station to the Shoreline area, where young employees from Google and Microsoft are expected to embrace its cutting-edge means of moving people around.

Council members say it is premature to call PRT their favorite transportation solution for the Shoreline area, but so far its purported low cost and efficiency looks attractive in comparison to the light rail and shuttle services touted for Shoreline Boulevard over the years. Light rail projects have cost $100 million per mile while SkyTran would cost only $10 million per mile, according to Baertsch. The company claims its passive magnetic levitation technology is a breakthrough in terms of cost and efficiency.

Baertsch said his company is "getting extremely close" to securing several million in venture capital funding to finish developing SkyTran.

Unimodal believes SkyTran fares could generate revenue for local government agencies while buses and light rail do not. In tough economic times, Baertsch said, Mountain View officials may be happy to know that the first city to agree to a SkyTran system will not have to spend a dime on it.

That city would also get a SkyTran factory as part of the deal, Baertsch said -- "That's part of the package."

Valley support

San Jose International Airport and the University of Michigan are among other locations considering a SkyTran system. But while Michigan's desire to reinvent itself as the center of transportation technology is attractive, Unimodal wants to create what it believes will be a multibillion industry in Silicon Valley, said Elizabeth Thompson, the company's director for strategic partnerships.

The technology still has to be tested, and Unimodal is planning to build a 1,000-foot oval test track on the tarmac behind Hangar Two at Moffett Field. NASA Ames director Pete Worden is highly supportive of the project, and the space agency's technology is expected to find its way into SkyTran engineering, Baertsch said.

Unimodal envisions a system serving a redeveloped NASA Ames Research Park, running across Stevens Creek to Google headquarters, to downtown Mountain View and eventually expanding all the way to the San Jose airport, where a request for proposals for a PRT project connecting it to the Santa Clara train station is expected later this year, Baertsch said.

New relevance

The City Council's resolution opens the door for PRT to be studied for the Shoreline area as the city updates its General Plan. The council has supported allowing Google, Microsoft and other companies to build buildings up to seven stories high in the Shoreline Area, which could pose traffic management challenges for the neighborhood north of Highway 101.

"How we get around is probably just as important to think about as the buildings themselves," said council member John Inks.

Council member Mike Kasperzak said he finds the idea of PRT in Mountain View "exciting" and was impressed with SkyTran's prototype during a recent visit to Unimodal's modest facility at NASA Ames.

And on a recent trip to London he was able to experience the ULTra PRT system being tested at Heathrow Airport. Ultra's pods are battery powered cars riding on cement paths at up to 30 miles per hour. He said the ride was "smooth" and something like a ride at Disneyland.

Steve Raney, principal for ATS ULTra North America, said Mountain View was the first city in the country to pass a resolution in favor of PRT as a concept.

Despite the interest, in tough budget times council members said it was unlikely the city could fund such a project. An 8.5-mile-long system with 24 stations would cost between $60 million and $130 million, according to a city staff report.

How to fund

Among the fans of Personal Rapid Transit and SkyTran is transportation guru Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute. He said the city could probably qualify for federal funding for the project if necessary, especially if it could be shown that it would create jobs quickly.

To qualify, matched funding of 20 percent would have to come from the city's Shoreline Community tax district, the Valley Transportation Authority or the Shoreline tech companies that would make use of PRT. Before federal funds could even be applied for, the city would have to find $1 million for initial studies, Diridon said. He recommended working with the VTA to expand PRT regionally.

Unimodal has already worked with Google, which considered using SkyTran to connect a new million-square-foot campus at NASA Ames to Hangar One, which they have considered using as a parking lot, Baertsch said. And Google's co-founder, Larry Page, has made comments about his personal interest in PRT technology.

The city of San Francisco asked SkyTran for the costs of a seven-mile system on Geary Street. Using the current fare box revenue for the Geary Street buses, Baertsch calculated that the system would begin to turn a profit after four years. More than 3,000 people per square mile are needed to make a profit with SkyTran, the company says, and Mountain View has about 6,000 people per square mile.

High speeds

The light rail system in Santa Clara County has been little used in part because of its slow speed -- it averages 12 miles per hour in some places. SkyTran plans for 50 mile per hour speeds just to start off, but is designed to reach up to 150 miles per hour. Unimodal claims that one SkyTran guideway can provide the capacity of three freeway lanes.

Because of its light weight, the system supposedly can be mounted from light poles -- no expensive new infrastructure needed. Unimodal says SkyTran's benefits are due to its "passive mag-lev" technology the company is developing, which allows the pods to basically float on their overhead guideways once at speed.

If PRT really turns out to be affordable and safe (Unimodal says it is 20 times safer than a car and safer than flying), then its appearance may be its hardest selling point.

"It looks kind of futuristic," said council member Margaret Abe-Koga. "I'm not sure if folks would be open to that."

Baertsch said Unimodal was not attached to the exterior design of the pods, and joked that the company would build retro style pods that looked like San Francisco trolley cars if that's what people wanted.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


3 people like this
Posted by Nick
a resident of Shoreline West
on Apr 1, 2010 at 3:08 pm

I'd really like to see VTA and the City of MV partner on a study that weighs the feasibility of a light rail extension up Central Expressway and due north along Stierlin/Shoreline Boulevard all the way to the gatehouse of Shoreline Park. A transit line that directly connects Caltrain/Downtown MV to Shoreline/North Bayshore could be one of the most-used stretches of light rail in the system. Unlike the convulted path the current Whisman route takes, a Shoreline Boulevard light rail route would be as straight-as-an-arrow and could have stations right in front of places people want to be; Downtown Mountain View, Bailey Park/Safeway, Century 16/Computer History Museum, Google, Shoreline Amphitheatre/Shoreline Park.

As for this proposal...well hrmm.

First question that comes to mind as a frequent rider of more traditional forms of transit: who the heck is going to pay for the maintenance of all these individual little pod cars and how will they be cleaned throughout the day? It's hard enough to keep a train or bus clean and comfortable, but without the watching eyes of other riders and a train conductor, certain people are likely to subject these personal cars to even more abuse than typical transit vehicles. Vandalism. Grit and grime. Awful smells. "Accidents." They're tough to manage on a bus and would be magnified in a pod. The only thing I can think of is that these pods would self-clean like those fancy automated public toilets some cities have...

On a larger scale, the initial set-up might be free, but the long term costs of maintaining such a form of transit could be unsustainable. If Mountain View were to become an early tester of this system and one of the few companies that makes these pods goes out of business, getting replacement parts could become very costly further down the road. Let college campuses and airports test this out and let the industry prove and establish itself before we make it the primary transit solution for the entire Northern half of Mountain View.

3 people like this
Posted by CountMeIn
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 1, 2010 at 5:01 pm

I want this! I want to use it to commute to Lockheed. Quickly!

3 people like this
Posted by Ben
a resident of Monta Loma
on Apr 1, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Personal Rapid Transit and SkyTran in Mountain View (passenger capacity of a three-lane freeway) – is it another pie in the sky scheme?

Remember when Disney Land in LA opened – monorail, the system of the future!

BART before it was approved by an election, claimed it would provide 90-second headways (a train coming in a station) service!

When the Santa Clara County Transportation District was to be voted on, a Personal Rapid Transit grid over Silicon Valley was proposed – was consider ridiculous and went nowhere.

In the 1970s, SRI had a government-funded study of Maglev – it was stopped. (Google -SRI Maglev study – too many problems)

Council members Mike Kasperzak (a Mediator & Arbitrator) and Margaret Abe-Koga (a Harvard grad in Government Studies) are really the best to people to evaluate fantastic engineering claims and problems (to many to discus here) with old failed ideas that never were widely accepted and put into use in the last 50 years?

3 people like this
Posted by Jack Slade
a resident of another community
on Apr 1, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Here we go again: Somebody is offering something free, and some dummy wants to "Study" it.

Who do you get to study something that is so new that they have never even seen it. THINK.

3 people like this
Posted by Dennis - Fresno PRT advocate
a resident of another community
on Apr 1, 2010 at 7:41 pm

I'm jealous of Mountain View's opportunity. I've been trying to interest Fresno in a PRT system, but your location is much more suitable. Then again Fresno has raised a lot more money to get the job done than you have. Ya really want to get beat by Fresno?

If so here's the method: Spend all your time deciding if it's a good idea instead of figuring out how to get it done.

3 people like this
Posted by Mr. Big
a resident of North Whisman
on Apr 1, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Let's do it!

Think big!

I can see it in my minds eye: Google Fiber, High Speed Rail and PRT (Skytran or ULTra).

Now that's a vision for the future that's exciting.

4 people like this
Posted by Brad Templeton
a resident of another community
on Apr 1, 2010 at 11:56 pm

Just about anything would do better than more VTA light rail. According to the DoE, VTA light rail uses more energy per person than the average light truck/SUV. And as the article says, it's slow to boot. Of course the buses are no better.

4 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of another community
on Apr 2, 2010 at 9:39 am

VTA light rail was all the rage a few years ago. It was going to save the environment, reduce traffic, and make all our lives happier. Now it's too slow, not energy efficient, and nobody rides it. More money down the rathole.

4 people like this
Posted by Michelle Rahn
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Apr 2, 2010 at 9:44 am

Mountain View is the perfect place to start the seed of a new approach to public transportation. There is so much innovation here, and talent, and potential users. This is a golden opportunity that should be carefully but heartily embraced, in a timely way. Let's get started! The advances in technology that created whole new industries started HERE, in this valley and there is no way to know where this application could go. Who would have thought everyone would want an Ipod even 10 years ago? People then may have thought it was an idea that would peter out. And now we have the Iphone, and the IPad, with thousands of applications that add value to daily life. This could spawn something just as big, or bigger.

4 people like this
Posted by Dave
a resident of North Whisman
on Apr 2, 2010 at 10:59 am

Jack Slade: "free" things often turn out not to be free. It would be irresponsible of the Mountain View City Council to approve something without at least attempting to validate the cost estimates.

4 people like this
Posted by Dave
a resident of North Whisman
on Apr 2, 2010 at 11:23 am

"...where young employees from Google and Microsoft are expected to embrace its cutting-edge means of moving people around."

Is anyone else troubled/annoyed by this weird obsession on the part of pod-travel advocates with appealing to the "young"? Steve Raney's reply to my posting last September about pod-travel (click on the ULTra link above to see it) seemed to consist entirely of:

1. Pod-travel is futuristic
2. Futuristic things appeal to "young people"
3. Young people are innovative
4. Therefore, if we want innovation in Mountain View, we need to build a pod-travel system.

As a Mountain View voter over the age of 30, I'll say that I don't find the above argument convincing. On the contrary, I find it borderline offensive.

4 people like this
Posted by eric
a resident of another community
on Apr 2, 2010 at 1:59 pm

I swear it's Springfield's only choice...
Throw up your hands and raise your voice!
What's it called?
Once again...
But Main Street's still all cracked and broken...
Sorry, Mom, the mob has spoken!

4 people like this
Posted by Joe Black
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 2, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Dave, just check out the Gone Green photo and post. Young people will do anything to go green and hip, even endanger themselves or have the taxpayers foot the bill.

4 people like this
Posted by Joe Green
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 2, 2010 at 4:07 pm

And BTW, only Google and Microsoft employees are capable or embracing anything new and cutting edge.

3 people like this
Posted by Steve Lawless
a resident of another community
on Apr 3, 2010 at 8:40 am

Well.....I'm old (67)and I like innovation. I've been following the PRT idea for years and have yet to be shown why it won't work. Huge sums are being poured into the same old technologies while PRT - which has myriad advantages - can't get a dime.

3 people like this
Posted by S. Webster
a resident of North Whisman
on Apr 4, 2010 at 11:43 am

Lets do it! I like the 'futuristic shape'. Instead of making it look like a San Francisco cable car to appease someone (jokingly) how about we make all automobiles look like Fred Flintstone's car.

Just say no to gas-combustion clown cars.

3 people like this
Posted by Thom
a resident of Jackson Park
on Apr 4, 2010 at 2:55 pm

Straight from the Jetson's. Looks and sounds great!

3 people like this
Posted by Rad T
a resident of Whisman Station
on Apr 4, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Ski lifts in Mountain View, my dream comes true.

3 people like this
Posted by CC
a resident of Shoreline West
on Apr 5, 2010 at 5:21 pm

The concept sounds very interesting.

It appears to me that it did not take up too much Real Estate, and it seems produce little noise. Cost is low -- a plus.

Think bigger, make it "D" system to serve people tranveling around. Make it solar and wind powered. Make it with recycle material. Make it a WiFi network or fiber network. Make it cost less than driving a car.....

3 people like this
Posted by BD
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Apr 6, 2010 at 11:49 am

I don't see the advantage of this over using existing roads. We already have a point-to-point network of transportation corridors. If you're worried about traffic, encourage bicycles (even better: shared bicycles at bike stands around the city) and smaller cars with carpooling. Even if free for the city, the environmental and quality of life degradation from this sound like a rotten deal.

3 people like this
Posted by Ceve
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Apr 7, 2010 at 8:43 am

Anyone read the front page? Caltrain making drastic cuts in service; Mountain View hiking fees on recreation programs. We can't afford the stuff we have now. I agree with Dave. "Free" things always do fall back on local government one way or another (access, security, ..).

3 people like this
Posted by Evans
a resident of another community
on Apr 7, 2010 at 12:34 pm

PRT vs Light Rail vs Buses.

What do we know? We know that Light Rail & Buses are dismal failures.

Light Rail is obscenely expensive to build when it cannot be routed on existing track (and terribly expensive where there is existing track), expensive to run & hardly anyone rides it.

Busses are cheap to build, because they can run on existing roads (ie, their "track cost" is paid for by others) but expensive to run because you have to pay for drivers. So they run as infrequently as possible & hardly anyone rides them.

PRT has never been built - yet - but could actually be profitable, rather than eternally subsisized, and get people out of their cars. Worst argument against it? People might go poopie in the cars.

I'll take my chances.

3 people like this
Posted by MarkT
a resident of Rex Manor
on Apr 12, 2010 at 11:10 pm

I've been following SkyTran for years. It looks great, and beats cars, buses, light rail, CalTrain, and high speed rail (HSR). We should use SkyTran instead of HSR. It would save billions to build, be much cheaper to run, and probably be about as fast when point-to-point time is considered. Think of the right-of-way and other headaches that would vanish.

Then we have it phase out CalTrain, light rail, and many bus routes.

Here are some SkyTran advantages over HSR that I can think of:
• It’s much cheaper to install and operate.
• ** Its capital cost is estimated to be $10 million/mile for both directions (vs. $40 - $60 million/mile for HSR, and $100 million/mile for light rail).
• ** Its costs will decrease as volume goes up, while HSR’s costs will likely increase.
• ** Skytran expects to be able to make a profit, while HSR will likely continue to be an expense.
• ** Its total cost per passenger mile is estimated to be less than $0.03.
• ** Its ticket price would thus be much less than HSR.
• ** Its low ticket price would attract more riders than HSR would.
• ** It’s much more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.
• It’s much quieter (almost noiseless).
• It doesn’t require widely separated large stations that riders have to travel to.
• It allows many small stations that would often be easy to walk or bike to.
• It eliminates the need for large parking lots.
• It doesn’t require heavy and expensive infrastructure, and could likely use most current bridges.
• Its lighter infrastructure would be less vulnerable to earthquakes.
• It doesn’t require the complicated and divisive right of way that HSR does.
• Its environmental impact is much smaller than HSR's.
• Its environmental impact report would thus be approved more easily than HSR's.
• It can be built more quickly than HSR.
• Its approval would likely be easier and faster, because it’s much cheaper.
• It doesn’t disrupt or divide communities on its routes.
• It eliminates accidents between cars and trains.
• It eliminates the potential for “train suicides” or similar accidents (15-20/year on SF-SJ Caltrain).
• It’s much less vulnerable to terrorism, because riders are not concentrated in large trains or stations.
• It doesn’t interfere with current traffic, roads and rail systems.
• It’s immune to trash and litter on rails, and resistant to inclement weather.
• Its riders don’t have to wait for scheduled trains.
• It can run 24/7.
• Its proposed speed is 100 MPH in cities, and 150 MPH (or more) between cities.
• Its passengers don’t stop at intermediate stations.
• Its travel time is comparable to HSR and airplanes, when door-to-door time is used.
• Its estimate of 8640 riders/hour means one track could easily handle HSR’s expected 32,000 - 38,000 riders/day in 2035.
• It’s easily expandable to include many branch and parallel lines.
• It can be redundant and robust -- with a web of tracks, allowing travel around sections that might have problems.
• It could take over the peninsula traffic from Caltrain, eliminating Caltrain’s expected $471 million electrification cost.
• It would provide improved (faster, cheaper, and quieter) service along the Caltrain route.
• It might be expanded to take over many of the other rail and bus routes around the SF Bay and LA areas.
• It might be expanded with extensions to Sacramento and other metropolitan and recreation areas (such as Tahoe).
• It would provide the functionality that voters intended when they voted for HSR.
• It’s modern, with a 21st Century design, instead of the 19th Century train concept.
• It would make California the worldwide leader in public transportation.

Because of these many positive attributes (and some I probably haven’t thought of), Californians would quickly appreciate SkyTran. Also, people from the other transportation systems will likely oppose SkyTran because it will take business from them.

My understanding is that federal money requires that the system already have an installed base, which SkyTran does not have. It is likely enough cheaper than HSR that even with a possible loss of federal money, it would still be cheaper for California. Also, the federal limitation could be changed or modified.

3 people like this
Posted by Lee Walker
a resident of another community
on Apr 15, 2010 at 7:01 am

The challenge that would face Mountain View is that Skytran is only one of several comparable advanced transit technologies. Until sonstuction starts, these other companies will be offering similar deals with their own technology, making it difficult to choose.

How Mountain View and other cities can get the wheels rolling now to make a commitment to modern transportation: Start planning/approving the route and legalities now with a commitment to eventually choose between the competitors.

Several other cities will follow the same process, (approving routes, EIRs, etc. first, so that it can be installed quickly when the new technology for that city is chosen. Only this will reduce the construction time enough to inspire investors enough to be ready.

If you have to choose between competing technologies first, there is too much risk that a competitor will be more successful and hijack the project before construction starts, which is why investors still are not putting in enough money up for any of them to promise a national system someday.

If the MV Voice does a series about alternative advanced transit companies that would also like to install a free system here, we will see that automated rail transit is inevitable and that Mountain View should move quickly to start this process to be 1st with the best technology that is necessary worldwide to jelp stop global warming, oil shortages, wars for oil etc.
Other technologies are listed by the University of Washington at Web Link such as Oakland's Cybertran

3 people like this
Posted by Johnny Paycheck
a resident of Castro City
on Apr 15, 2010 at 12:28 pm

There has never been a PRT system that was not a massive failure.

In fact there has not been a "pod" system that even worked as public transit. Just google PRT airport or PRT boondoggle or PRT bogus.

Toss your tax money away to flim flammers with "faith based transit",
PRT is more like the Hindenburg than a working system.

3 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of The Crossings
on Apr 24, 2010 at 7:59 am

I find it amusing that HSR and LTR supporters are always knocking PRT. I understand they want to protect their investment and financial interest but the claims that PRT will not work are simply unfounded. If this country would have dumped the billions of dollars in PRT over the past decade as we have in High Speed and Light Rail, we would have had an excellent PRT system that could have saturated entire metro regions. Those knocking PRt have no evidence it won't work other than they hope it doesn't. It is time to tell the rail and oil lobby that we are done funding their underutilized systems in favor of one that more precisely meets American culture. Americans want on demand, private rapid transit. I don't want to be crowded in with hundreds of others climbing on top of me in germ infested cars stopping every five minutes. I want to walk out of my house, get into a private vehicle - in this case a pod - enter my destination and go directly there as quickly as possible.

The revenue stream for PRT would be excellent. Inside each car could be pay for view tv/movies and wifi. People could actually get work done in privacy. Could conduct conference/sales calls without interruption or disturbing others.

Rail and oil proponents are scared to death by PRT. They know once a system is up and running in one city in the US, the days of rail as mass transit are over.

3 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of The Crossings
on Apr 24, 2010 at 8:08 am

I think these comments are amusing:
Posted by Johnny Paycheck, a resident of the Castro City neighborhood, on Apr 15, 2010 at 12:28 pm

There has never been a PRT system that was not a massive failure.
In fact there has not been a "pod" system that worked as public transit. Just google PRT airport or PRT boondoggle or PRT bogus.
Toss your tax money away to flim flammers with "faith based transit",
PRT is more like the Hindenburg than a working system.
So Mr. Paycheck--
Name one rail system that does not require massive taxpayer subsidy?
Name one rail system that has utilization over 5%?
How many billions have we wasted on rail systems that folks do not use. Even in Chicago and New York ridership share is extremely low.
Do you not understand that those anti PRT websites are operated by those wanting to protect their financial interests in existing technology?
What solution do you propose? If you are not part of the solution, you must be part of the problem.
What are you scared of? Must be worried PRT will work and will actually have ridership levels that produce a self supported transit system instead of all the government subsidy that is required to keep rail systems in service.

3 people like this
Posted by James Tank
a resident of Castro City
on Oct 2, 2010 at 5:16 pm

I love the concept but am concerned about the infrastructure. I have read that the system would be attached to the existing system of light pole. Only problem is the number of trees that live between them. Does their suggestion of using these require the removal of so many of our trees.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

After 39 years of cakes and pastries, Palo Alto institution Prolific Oven to close
By Elena Kadvany | 55 comments | 17,542 views

Local Transit to the Rescue?
By Sherry Listgarten | 16 comments | 2,121 views

The Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) Process Explained
By Steve Levy | 9 comments | 1,527 views

"You Gotta Have Balls [to do counseling] . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,298 views


Register now!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

More Info