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City considers bold new transit system

Original post made on Sep 16, 2009

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. A City Council subcommittee is set to discuss the idea tonight at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, September 16, 2009, 10:24 AM

Comments (22)

Posted by Deborah
a resident of another community
on Sep 16, 2009 at 12:50 pm

My perspective on public transit is that you should consider route over all other concerns. That's why VTA runs empty - it connects businesses.
Commuters are not ideal customers for public transport. Run it where people step on and off because they shop, because kids go to school, because the elderly can get to places they want to go etc. These are your primary customers. For instance, the bus along El Camino is always well used. That's where a light rail or other method would do the most.
You have to give up road space, where people travel by car, but that's where the traffic is.
If you try to reach commuters: they come from all over and they go the same route every day, they want the convenience of a car if it saves them minutes and gets them from door to door. How many google employees take caltrain and would this number truly rise? They can take a bike right now, and not all of them would switch to something else. Moffet Field and universities in general are different, since students may use public transport more readily. You need also to build in significant price reductions for regular use; and you have to make weekly monthly even yearly passes very very accessible: sell them at every grocery store, at every drugstore, sell them at the traffic centers by credit/debit card and so on.

Posted by JeffM
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 16, 2009 at 2:27 pm

RE " ... the six-foot-wide cement paths can be constructed at a speed of about one mile per month by a four-person crew."

??? Four people would be doing extremely well to construct 250 feet per day of a gravel garden path

Deborah, with all due respect, the point here is to alleviate commmute traffic (workers and students)by providing a new, efficient local alternative to completing their daily journeys by car. The connection is between regional transit hubs and dense areas of workplaces. People who depend on mass transit for shopping or because they do not drive are not the target audience. Light rail along El Camino would replace the existing buses.

Posted by commuter
a resident of another community
on Sep 16, 2009 at 4:36 pm

With all due respect to Deborah, she is clueless about transit. The LR is empty because its provides a scenic route of SCC rather than moving commuters quickly and directly to their work sites. CAL train works "better" precisely because it moves a lot of people to high density work areas in SF. A lot of google workers use transit, but it is privately provided by Google. VTA and LR are empty because they are set up more for shoppers and not commuters.

Posted by PRT Strategies
a resident of another community
on Sep 16, 2009 at 4:39 pm

For more on Personal Rapid Transit in Calfornia:

Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Sep 16, 2009 at 6:25 pm

PRT – Cyberspace Dream Keeps Colliding With Reality
Web Link

PRT is a joke!
Web Link

Pros and Cons of Personal Rapid Transit
Web Link

Personal Rapid Transit: An Unrealistic System
Web Link

Critics of PRT/Gadgetbahn
Web Link

Posted by Peter Muller
a resident of another community
on Sep 16, 2009 at 7:23 pm is independent of any vendor and has general PRT information along with links to vendors and associations.

Posted by Steve Raney - Palo Alto
a resident of another community
on Sep 16, 2009 at 10:02 pm

Reality Check,

Why are there anti-PRT bloggers?

There are a few vocal folks who absolutely hate the PRT concept, but they tend to make criticisms about older PRT designs and do not make any specific comments about the ULTra design. Further, there really is no way for "PRT haters" to make an informed analysis of the ULTra design, as this requires a) a high level of relevant technical expertise, b) access to proprietary design details about the ULTra system, and c) very significant time and money to conduct a thorough study.

Somehow transit is a passion-inducing topic. There are subway-lovers and subway-haters. There are light rail lovers and light rail haters; bus lovers and bus haters; PRT lovers and PRT haters, etc. There are pro and con websites devoted to various types of transit and transit systems. The ratio of ardent PRT lovers to haters is approximately 100:4.

There are long-standing anti-PRT articles such the 2004 "PRT is a Cyberspace Dream" by a light rail advocacy website (Web Link The success of ULTra in the face of 40 years of PRT failure by other project teams highlights the unique talents of ATS ULTra engineers/designers and highlights the wisdom of UK government, EU Research Directorate, and BAA funding of the ULTra project.

For Heathrow ULTra PRT, BAA made an equity investment in ATS. Before investing in ATS, BAA undertook a rigorous technical analysis of ULTra, asking "what's wrong with ULTra." BAA undertook the most thorough analysis ever of a PRT system design. BAA asked many difficult questions and received pages of detailed responses from ATS. The result, for BAA: there isn't anything wrong with ULTra. ULTra meets the needs of a very demanding customer. Hence ATS is comfortable answering questions about the ULTra system. The more people know about ULTra, the more they come to understand the elegance and sophistication of the system.

For more details on the strange world of anti-PRT bloggers, see:
Web Link

Posted by Bengt Gustafsson
a resident of another community
on Sep 17, 2009 at 12:30 am

About a year ago I gave a so called "Google tech talk" on PRT, which is available on Youtube: Web Link

Towards the end it shows a smaller PRT network for the Googleplex, and a calculation showing it is profitable just by moving employees between the different Google buildings faster. Extending it to connect to BART and other long range transit would only improve the value!

For more information on PRT visit our company at

Posted by Dave
a resident of North Whisman
on Sep 17, 2009 at 4:23 pm

Why the focus on Google? OK, I know why, but the proposed PRT routes seem like a subsidy for the wealthiest company in the City. A company that already runs free shuttle buses between San Francisco and Mountain View doesn't need help shuttling their employees to/from Caltrain.

PRT strikes me as a much better solution for the industrial space along Ellis and Middlefield. Some of it is served by light rail, but not most of it. And there are lots of smaller companies, which are less likely to be able to afford shuttle service to Caltrain.

And let's not forget the residents of Mountain View. Unless you live in Whisman Station, it's either a long walk to downtown, or a car trip. PRT strikes me as much more valuable for residential neighborhoods than as a Google<->Caltrain link.

Finally, I can't help but notice (as a homeowner on Gladys Ave.) that while the PRT would help residents of San Jose, or San Francisco, get to their jobs at Google, if I worked at Google, I would still have to drive! Why should my taxes pay for this?

Posted by Steve Raney - Palo Alto
a resident of another community
on Sep 17, 2009 at 8:29 pm


I can see how you might think that well-paid Google employees don't deserve a special system. Some counterarguments:

1. Young, well-educated, early-adopter tech workers are great demographic to bring about innovations such as Android GPS cell phone enabled social networking high-tech carpooling (Avego, carticipate, etc). So to bring about a large green behavior change via a range of different green transportation technologies, including PRT, Google workers are terrific.

2. Shoreline Business Park is one of 200 major suburban job centers in the U.S. Each has an average of about 35,000 workers. These places have a nice size/scale for green transporation innovation. Further, these 200 places are arguably the world's per capita CO2/driving maximizers. If we can fix one of these places with some innovations, then there's a chance we can fix them all. Currently, about 83% of folks commute by driving alone. Here are some expert thoughts about the need to fix suburban job centers:

* Peter Calthorpe (author: The Next American Metropolis) at the Congress for New Urbanism Conference (CNU XIII), June '05: "We new urbanists didn't focus on the growth of office parks. This was a huge mistake. We need powerful strategies for these job centers. Also, one of my pet peeves is that we've been dealing with 19th Century transit technology. We can do better than that. We can have ultra light elevated transit systems with lightweight vehicles. With lighter vehicles, the system will use less energy."

* UCLA Professor Donald Shoup (author: The High Cost of Free Parking) at CNU XIII. "Parking lots within our office parks represent a 'land bank.' Office parks can be transformed in ways that few people now envision."

* Says Andrés Duany (author: Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl ...) about his plan to transform the "Upper Rock" business park in Rockville, MD, "If Suburbia is to thrive in the 21st century, a place must be created that captures the imagination of the young, educated 'creative class'. No longer seduced by office parks with out-dated marble lobbies, these workers are attracted to loft living and downtown intensity that reflects their self-image as 'worker-as-artist'."

* Geoffrey Booth (ULI lead author: Transforming Suburban Business Districts) "It's all about quality of life - our life and our life style. We are looking for more vibrant, pedestrian-friendly, live-work-shop places - making such places the emerging focus of smart growth. Our overriding objective in Transforming Suburban Business Districts is to secure the Place-Making Dividend. Not just a sound real estate return but one that carries with it tangible benefits to the community and for government finance. Create a special place in which we feel comfortable and secure, and where our spirits are lifted."

* Berkeley Professor Robert Cervero: "Parking lot laden office parks are one of our biggest blights, but they also represent our largest opportunity for in-fill development because of their inefficient use of land."

3. If well-funded, the system could generate a surplus, including a $4M per year reduction in Caltrain operating loss.

Posted by NeHi
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Sep 17, 2009 at 8:31 pm

I don't see the problem. Our terrestrial roads are full so we build another layer higher up. We will pay for them, the government will own the vehicles and tell us where to go. Perhaps we should paint them green.

Next, we could bury them. But then we would run afoul of the high-speed rail right-of-way.

Posted by eric
a resident of another community
on Sep 18, 2009 at 9:01 am

"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"

-Maybe that has something to do with the unfettered development our council is allowing in Shoreline? Look at the traffic patterns at 85/101. Shoreline is the bottleneck.

Google is not guaranteed to stay in MV forever. Planning based on their whims is silly.

Show me a successful CalTrai->business park connector that has realy alleviated traffic. They dont exist-- they fill a niche but take few cars off the road.

Show me how this gets done without turning Shoreline between 101 and Central into a massive bottleneck. Thats a residential area that-- surprise!-- none of the council members live in (or likely acknowledge)

What percentage of Google employees live far enough away that CalTrain is viable? I'll bet minimal.

If this could be done affordably and without devastating in-town traffic, I could get behind it. I'm dubious that can happen.


Posted by Lorna
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 18, 2009 at 12:56 pm

I live near the Caltrain station and also make use of the VTA lightrail and the buses. I can never get to the shoreline area unless I drive. I wuld love to get to the Shoreline park, the Ampitheatre or the Computer History Museum by mass transit. From Castro and California Sts, I would need to take 2 buses and travel about an hour to reach the CHM, the movie theatres or the park. What a shame that residents mst have a car to travel over 101. I agree that Google people already are well paid and don't need the subsidy. They have their door to door shuttle, which residents cannot use.
We do have bus routes in the other direction up towards Los Altos, but no weekend service. If we want less reliance on our cars, we have to use the buses and trains now to encourage government to add more money to the mass transit system. Like Vegas, you cannot depend on a "Built it and they will come attitude". Their moorail system is not well used. MV Residents need an attitude adjustment. Get out of your cars. Try the current system and suggest ways to improve it. I came from NYC which has a fantastic mass transit system. No car is needed. After arriving in MV, I had no car for several months. Yes-It takes a long time to get around, but the biggest disadvantage is the limited locations and schedules. Mass trasit and walk friendly areas are indeed better ways to travel. Connecting the transit center with a PRT system to shoreline is one solution to consider. I would certainly use it.

Posted by Engineer
a resident of another community
on Sep 19, 2009 at 4:32 am

The boundless optimism of PRT proponents is a source of wonder. It's been proposed as a wodescale urban transit system for decades, yet the only system to have come close to implementation is in an airport car park - and even that is late and showing no signs of progress.

The PRT proponents do themselves no favours by overhyping the technology and pretending that it would be something other than a titanic gamble.

Posted by Ben
a resident of Monta Loma
on Sep 19, 2009 at 3:06 pm

PRT will never transport large numbers of people. Here is why:

Transit is never door to door.

Transit in not available on demand instantly and at any hour.

Transit is a 1 dimensional line service. (Autos are a 2 dimensional service.)

Transit does not provide personal space with personal items, confirmations and features.

Transit cannot collect riders from urban sprawl areas.

Transit dos not service the reverse commute riders.

The above comments are only some of what I remember for the Santa Clara County transit goals committee discussions in 1972 (meeting for 6 hours once a week for 6 weeks) when the County promised that the VTA would prevent traffic congestion in the future – most members of the committee were optimistic or delusional - there were only 3 members that were skeptical because land use planning was never implemented and the auto culture was not likely to change.

PRT Transit is costly, disruptive of the visual space, cannot possible accommodate the majority of the population and has many technical and logistic problems. (If it was accepted by the public, efficient, and practical, it would has taken off like the automobile a lone time ago.)

What City, County, and Regional Official as well as the general public never consider is: who is going to use transit, how does everyone get to it, when do they want to use it, and why do they want to use it, and is it fast and convenient. Transit is never “mass” (compared to the auto) and is never “rapid” (compared to the auto). Transit cannot possibly transport even 50 present of the commuters (never mind the shoppers and the after hours transport needs of a community).

If transit was the solution to congestions and overpopulation, it would not be the struggle to implement that it has been over the years and it would pay for itself.

Posted by Mr_Grant
a resident of another community
on Sep 19, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Door to door service is not a PRT aspiration. What it is conceived as is a means of putting rapid transit service within walking distance of all points within the service area. This is the level of service in cities with extensive underground metros, and they are used by something much more than a minority of travelers. However today's prices make it too expensive to retrofit cities with such systems, the only way to do it at an affordable cost per mile is with small lightweight vehicles on small guideways.

Posted by James Anderson Merritt
a resident of another community
on Sep 19, 2009 at 7:23 pm

Ben- You point out a number of valid objections to transit-as-we-know-it. But PRT isn't such a thing, and doesn't suffer from the disadvantages you cite.

- Although PRT isn't door-to-door, a well-designed PRT system will put stops within 1/4 mile of any point in the service area, and can include stops that are WITHIN buildings (office buildings, hotels, malls, etc.)

- A properly designed PRT is indeed available on demand and instantly at any hour (plus or minus any walking distance to the stop).

- PRT is 2-dimensional, not one-dimensional. A properly designed system is closer to a "matrix" of stops, as opposed to a collection of "lines."

- PRT provides secure, private personal space, although because the cars/pods are shared, it is true that riders don't get to personalize their spaces on a permanent basis. On the other hand, they don't have to worry about parking, insurance, or other things that owners of "personalized" vehicles must handle.

- I'm not sure what you mean by talking about "collecting riders from urban sprawl areas" or serving "reverse commute riders." As far as the latter, PRT serves "regular commute" and "reverse commute" equally well.

- The visual footprint and disruption of PRT systems isn't even as great as that for regular roads. The actual right-of-way required by PRT is MUCH smaller than a lane of road traffic. If necessary, it easier to camouflage or blend a PRT guideway into the surroundings than to do the same for a roadway, light rail line, or pretty much any other form of "transit."

In short, don't judge PRT against conventional transit. While PRT -- like any approach to transportation -- has its own strengths and weaknesses, it is NOT susceptible to most of the problems you mentioned, and has benefits that mitigate the rest.

Posted by James Anderson Merritt
a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2009 at 1:20 pm

I think that something else should be considered in the transit debate, and it is the waste of human lives that conventional transit only worsens.

Whether someone is stuck in gridlock on the highway, or must allocate an hour or more each way to commute back and forth to work every day using mass-transit, the result is the same: life wasted shuttling back and forth. In the transit case, the commuter doesn't need to drive or deal with traffic, and can nap, get work done, interact with others, etc. But in the personal vehicle case, the person has secure, personal "travel space" and can go directly from point A to point B, usually much more quickly than via mass-transit. The worst-of-all-worlds intersection of these two experiences is when road traffic is so bad that mass-transit provides an alternative that delivers the commuter as quickly, or even more quickly, than the gridlocked personal vehicle.

PRT seeks to eliminate that worst case while improving the transportation situation generally. With PRT, you start at a point A that is very near your point of origination (home, office, etc.), you quickly acquire a PRT car (usually they are waiting for you, but if not, can arrive in 1-2 minutes), and you go directly to point B, which is very near your intended destination. There is no gridlock, and you make no intermediate stops, so the ride is quick, even if the car travels on average no faster than 25-35 mph. (The system-wide average speed of BART trains is only 33 mph, by the way.) While en route, you can make calls, converse with friends or associates, get work done, listen to music, watch a short video, or even rest your eyes. When you disembark, the car picks up another passenger and speeds away; you don't have to waste time or money parking it, much less registering or insuring it. Trip time is minimized and you get to spend that time as you see fit, in privacy, safety and comfort.

Too much of our time is spent going places and waiting -- waiting for trains or buses, waiting for innumerable lights to turn green or congestion to dissipate in traffic, circling the parking lot looking for a spot ... whatever. PRT is a way of getting that valuable time back under OUR control.

Posted by Ben
a resident of Monta Loma
on Sep 21, 2009 at 3:38 pm

To: James Anderson Merrit,

“PRT is 2-dimensional, not one-dimensional.” Answer: Not completely. I it is quasi 2-dimentional. It does not go any door to door.

“I'm not sure what you mean by talking about "collecting riders from urban sprawl areas" or serving "reverse commute riders." As far as the latter, PRT serves "regular commute" and "reverse commute" equally well.” Answer: No correct! PRT will never serve Los Altos Hills (Urban Sprawl) and not likely to be constructed in Los Altos. Reverse commute is house cleaning help commuting for poor income areas to urban sprawl areas like Los Altos Hills - difficult to serve by transit or PRT.

PRT for every person is as acceptable to the general public as the Company Store and Company Housing – working in the same high rise (company owned) as they live in, shop in, and play in – that would almost be a complete commute solution.

Posted by Andrew
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 23, 2009 at 12:31 am

I'll take a shot from way beyond left field :) and ask, why not consider building a gondola? They are quiet, electric, probably cheaper to build (big poles versus tracks), nice mountain views, etc. Probably not the fastest (I don't know their max speed), though.

When I visited Medellin, Colombia, they had a couple of these integrated into their light rail network. Seemed to be a brilliant solution.

Posted by jack barry
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Sep 30, 2009 at 4:14 pm

I am in S.F....
I would love to have PRT along Geary Boulevard, and up/down Market Street and Van Ness. They take you, NON_STOP to your exit point..

Conventional rapid transit in the Bay Area, makes you stop at EVERY stop. (what is so "rapid" about that! ) Six foot wide guideways, overhead, would be pretty innocuous looking, I think.!!!
jack barry in SF

Posted by James Anderson Merritt
a resident of another community
on Oct 2, 2009 at 4:10 pm

"Door to door": "Door to door" makes sense only if you are parked right next to your "door" when you start, and can park immediately, right next to the "door" of your destination when you get there. In real life, that is rarely the case, so we should be careful to compare the general PRT experience with the general automobile experience: apples to apples.

In a great many cases, PRT is effectively "door-to-door," when you consider the complete experience of a trip. If PRT stops are within 1/4 mile of any point in the service area, then assuming a walking pace of 3 miles per hour, you are never more than 5 minutes away from a PRT stop. Most people will be closer. At the PRT stop, you will usually never have to wait for a car, but during busy times, your wait could be a minute or two. (Most people take a minute or two to start their cars.) The same situation will exist at your point of destination, except that you won't have to spend the time necessary to park your personal vehicle. The PRT car will become available to another passenger immediately, and you will travel one-to-five minutes, walking or via other means, to the door of your destination. Already, with cars, you walk back and forth to parking lots and garages, and often spend as much time walking to or from your car as you might walk to and from a PRT stop.

"Two dimensional" vs. "Door to door." PRT _is_ 2 dimensional -- planar, not linear. The criticism here seems not to be so much about the "dimensionality" of the system but about the density of coverage. Careful, considerate design of the latter can maximize convenience throughout the service area.

"PRT for every person." This is arguing a straw man. I didn't say (and don't even WANT) PRT to replace the car or other forms of transportation/transit. Sometimes, the best thing is to use your own truck or car. I love driving and taking road trips. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate and get a lot of good use out of something like a PRT system. Sometimes you drink wine, sometimes beer, sometimes liquor, sometimes milk, sometimes water, sometimes a soft drink. It's all about options and choice. The point is that any particular option should succeed or fail based on its own ability to sustain itself. I don't want PRT to be a subsidized system, much less a TAX-subsidized system. I don't want PRT to be the ONLY system available or approved for citizens to use in getting around. I want PRT to be constructed and operated so as to pay for itself and its expansion, alongside any other transportation options available. I believe that PRT offers such a great mix of benefits that people will often choose it instead of those other options -- enough for PRT to pay the bills, keep the lights on and the cars rolling, and even improve and extend itself. In my opinion, from all I have seen and learned over the past decade or so of looking into the issue, NO OTHER FORM of public transit has PRT's potential for self-sustainability. I hope that the proposed Mountain View system is pursued with that goal in mind.

Gondolas. I like gondolas. In some contexts, they make more sense than other alternatives. But they don't tend to scale well into a flexible (gondola-only) transportation system over a wide area with many routes. It might make sense, to have a gondola going from a large parking lot or parking structure to an office/business park or shopping mall, however. A PRT approach from Poland (MISTER PRT) combines a gondola-like hanging-car design with a clever system for routing the cars, non-stop, from point of origin to destination. I have often thought that MISTER would be a good form of PRT for my own town, Santa Cruz. See it here: Web Link

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