Friday, August 5, 2011

We have a problem - fitting PRT to India

We have a problem.

I have a startup for making light weight PRT transportation, and India is supposed to be a main market. Today, when walking the streets in Mangalore, I realized the solution won't fit for two reasons.

( A little disclaimer first: Mangalore is not really suffering from too much urban growth or traffic congestion. Currently, it is not in a need of PRT. But some parts of India (i.e. Bangalore) desperately are and these issues might abound there as well. )

#1 - Electric wires *everywhere* in the air
We cannot think of putting traffic at 3,5m if there are electric wires at 5. This sometimes occurs is western cities as well, but much, much less since there cables are more underground. I.e. city lighting is done with underground cables.

#2 - Movement patterns are different
We have been riding around the center with rickshaw. The problem is that at least in Mangalore, there are no suburbs or other "natural areas of movement", as I like to call them. No "city within city" but in order to get stuff and go places, people travel here and there, seemingly randomly. I guess the lack of city planning has caused this. Anyways, it's a fact. No suburbs.

That means two things: gradual introduction of PRT is a doomed idea. In order for a system to be usable, it must reach places. A track covering some particular part of a homogenous city is useless.

Second, an introduction to a whole city (which I think is utopian anyways) would cause major havoc among rickshaw drivers and others losing their livelyhood. Not so with gradual introduction (if that were possible) since the drivers could continue business nearby.


I cannot see a solution to these issues, which is okay in itself. PRT should not be pushed into places where it does not fit, or brings little additional value. We must be careful with that once the hype stage of these tracks comes - it is a disgrace if they end up destroying local life instead of enforcing it.

The air wires probably will be put into cables eventually - at least that is what happened in the west. Maybe in a monsoon climate it's actually better to have wires in the air?

At least in bigger cities, rich people are getting their own "suburbs", but they are not large enough for an internal transport network. And for such rich people walking wouldn't normally hurt. The idea of a PRT track connecting such apartment islands with selected malls and selected workplace feels like a disgrace as well.

If you have a solution to this, please comment or send a tweet to @bmdesignhki.



Nathan Koren said...

Quick responses:

1.) Yes, conflicts with overhead utilities is a significant issue in most of India. This can only really be handled by undergrounding the utilities as part of the PRT installation process. If the municipality wants to do that anyways, then great -- they can do it at their own expense; otherwise it certainly adds to the cost and complexity of a PRT installation. This is rarely a deal-killer, but can definitely be a complication.

2.) Mangalore actually sounds quite unusual as far as Indian cities go; most that I've worked in have had an excess of discrete "colonies"/developments that make for relatively distinct travel patterns. But in fact homogenous demand is a good thing from the perspective of a PRT system, as it tends to create more efficient allocation of empty vehicles.

3.) I wouldn't say it's true that in a homogenous city a PRT system has to go everywhere to be useful; it only has to go everywhere to be maximally useful. A partial network does have a less attractive business case (in line with Metcalfe's law), but the question is whether the business case is sufficient for a given network. In many cases it is.

4.) That said, PRT business cases are always, always, always better when they're based around the institutional / real estate benefits of integrating with a new development, rather than trying to collect farebox revenue from addressing a pre-existing transport demand pattern.

5.) Finally, the issue of displacing autorickshaw and other IPT drivers is not one to take lightly. If you are proposing to provide good coverage to an entire urban region, then it's a serious concern. If you're giving partial coverage, however, then a PRT system may actually enhance IPT ridership on its peripheries, by inducing people to take split-mode PRT/rickshaw journeys where they would otherwise just take a car. (This is another reason why smallish, institutionally-focused networks are a good place to start.) Also, PRT operations in India will naturally be more personnel-intensive than in the West; preference should be given to training and hiring otherwise displaced IPT operators, wherever possible.

Asko K. said...

Thanks, Nathan.

After sleeping over this, I too was seeing new developments (your point 4) as one possibility. And I need to travel more in India - now have only limited exposure to certain places.

Bhubaneshwar (Orissa) seems interesting to me. Designed with wide roads and city layout, it would be interesting to analyze PRT benefits there.

And yes, PRT should be complementing road level transport, not replacing. We need to take the *growth* of transport to another level, not vacuum the perfectly usable road level entirely. That is not the plan.

In fact, two most eager proponents for PRT concept have been taxi drivers, one in London and one in Delhi. When they heard of the plan, they instantly "got" it and embraced it. Yes, this city really needs that! That's probably because they know the everyday transport best. PRT will make their routes more driveable (or maybe hire them as operators or service personnel).