Imagine a Boston full of pods for people

ULTra PRT | Fully Charged

The Boston City Council tomorrow considers a proposal to open city streets to developers of small solar-powered "pods" that could provide individualized mass transit through a monorail and a large computer network that would let people set destinations for their pods and then just speed off.

Councilor Steve Murphy (at large) is seeking council permission for a hearing on letting a company build a pilot "solar personal rapid transit" system along or above Boston streets. In 2013, a company proposed a pod system for Columbia Point.

He says that if the new system takes off, it could save Massachusetts commuters an estimated $9 billion a year in time now wasted sitting in traffic - and provide a cleaner form of transportation to boot. He points to a bill by state Sen. Robert Hedlund to encourage development of the systems statewide.

The council's meeting begins at noon in its fifth-floor chambers in City Hall.



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PDF icon Murphy's solar PRT hearing request39.97 KB


Beware of the Pod People

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These pods could only ever be useful for a small area like a airport, college campus, or amusement park environment. If the City of Boston or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts sees a value in investing in transportation and reducing traffic congestion, then they should probably invest in our already existing public transit system that has a proven usefulness to commuters rather than a theoretical usefulness.

I agree

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I think this is fad-ish. I'd rather have the $ sunk into fixing the T.

Of course if it's done, knowing this state, within 10 years it'll be falling apart since no maintenance will be done on it and no money will be avaliable to fix it.


the monorail is more of a Springfield idea.

There's nothing on earth like

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There's nothing on earth like a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car monorail!

...Which this pod system is not, so I am skeptical.

Exactly, does not scale well...

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The red line can move upwards of 1000 people per trainset in a straight line every 4.5 min. PRT would require 333 cars every 4.5min to match the red line capacity, assuming 3 people are willing to share every trip of course!

Even if the entire thing was automated, there would probably be a significant constraint on physical space.

Urban Ring

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Funny.. much of this on the south side of town follows the Urban Ring route.


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Say what you will about the Russians, their "rings" on the Moscow Metro are brilliant.

Sort of relatedly, I was just

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Sort of relatedly, I was just in Moscow and was surprised that they didn't have a display on the Metro showing when the next train was arriving. My sense of superiority was short lived however, when I quickly realized they don't need it because their trains arrive reliably every 1.5 to at the very most 3 minutes. They did seem to have timers counting up from the last train's departure, and I never saw one hit 3:00. Might have been my imagination, but I felt like overall lower passenger stress levels as compared to the T were noticeable. (also, I agree the rings are brilliant. At least, despite all those lines, I never had to transfer more than once to get from point A to B)

It's not actually true that 3

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It's not actually true that 3 minutes is the maximum headway. I was taking the metro at 11 pm one night and I had to wait a whole 4 minutes for a train. Which means that service even in the far off peak is more frequent than any line in Boston during rush hour.


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Yeah, when I was there three years ago it was kind of funny how there was seemingly a train there within two minutes, without fail.

But in 10 years self driving

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But in 10 years self driving smart car sized vehicles will be commercially available and not require any additional infrastructure or cost to the city.

This is exactly what I was

This is exactly what I was thinking. Why sink any money into this when self driving cars will be able to do exactly this (but with more flexibility and scalability) utilizing the existing infrastructure?

This is inaccurate. Self

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This is inaccurate. Self-driving cars would need all the infrastructure that cars currently need (Traffic lanes, parking spaces, etc.) and would probably cause more congestion if they are programmed to cruise around looking for people to transport.

This is why increasing mode share for transit, bicycling, and walking is important. If people take public transit, bike, or just walk that is better for the environment and it's also the only proven way of reducing automobile traffic congestion.

… not really

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Computers are already far better drivers than humans, and they won't "cruise" for fares, they will pick up an exact location when called just like an Uber today, drop off, and dock to recharge. They'll be small enough to fit many more on the road with no emissions using infrastructure already constructed.

It will also be massively safer for bikers, and likely cost competitive with the T… and likely powered by Uber itself at this point given how far ahead they are.

Why would autonomous cars

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Why would autonomous cars cruise for passengers? They'd just park at the first opportunity, and passengers would use an uber-like app to summon the nearest vehicle. The only cars on the road would either be transporting passengers or moving to occupy empty parking spaces in areas of high demand.

Since the vehicles are autonomous, they will park in off-street lots that can be equipped with some sort of ez-pass mechanism to pay for parking, so it's not like they'll be taking up meters near businesses.

If some substantial portion of the cars in the city functioned as cabs during the day, fares would have to drop, and regular cab companies would go out of business, unless they automated their fleets too. This would make not owning a car in the city even more viable than it already is, so I can't imagine why you'd predict increased congestion.

It could even end the space-saver controversy once and for all. Plows could send a signal to autonomous cars which would then vacate the street as it gets plowed all the way to the curb, and then return when the job is done. No space savers needed. Also, owners will no longer care about their car being parked close to their residence because their car will come to pick them up.

Bikes and walking are great, but don't be such a Luddite. Autonomous cars can easily be a huge win for everyone. They'll certainly be more civilized and predictable drivers, which ought to be a win for cyclists.

Self-driving cars are great, just won't appear soon

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If self-driving cars are circling the streets between passenger trips, they won't need parking spaces; likewise, if they park between trips, they won't be clogging up the streets. I think the net impact of replacing current cars with self-driving ones will be *very* positive. That said, self-driving cars are a long ways out and we shouldn't just sit on our hands waiting for them to show up.

It may not make sense to invest in a new form of public transit like pods at this point, but it'll be long enough before self-driving cars replace buses, subways (and eventually bikes, for commuting purposes at least) that it absolutely makes sense to increase funding for those modes of transportation. It's always been surprising to me how many people are willing to sit on the SE Expressway every morning rather than take the Red Line or commuter rail. We could run more trains, reduce breakdowns, increase bus access to the stations, expand/lower the price at the parking garages, re-open the Quincy Center garage, etc., for far less than building a pod system or widening the highway (I doubt the latter's even possible at this point). When self-driving cars start to appear, they could be used for the "last mile" trips to/from the stations until they're ready for highways.

Self-driving cars: fatal flaw

The concept of self-driving cars in Boston is doomed the moment that pedestrians figure out that they automatically stop when you walk in front of them. A drive up Comm Ave will take weeks.

We'll have to adjust.

I imagine that this is true, and we'll have to crack down on pedestrian traffic violations to get people to stop being dicks. I am mostly a pedestrian in Boston, and I can't stand the entitled morons who continually throw themselves in front of traffic just to get somewhere ten seconds faster.

When I have the right of way, I don't take any shit from selfish drivers. When I don't have the right of way, I understand that if I try to cross the street and force a driver to stop or even slow down for me, it means I'm the asshole. So I do my best not to be the asshole.

I wish there was a punishment short of getting run over that could deter pedestrians from being so stupid, but at the moment, at least, other people don't seem as bothered by it as I am.

Nowhere close to 10 years

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This is Google propaganda that's been accepted as fact, but Google's "self-driving" cars are actually not very good. They cannot drive beyond the roads that Google has spent millions of dollars measuring and mapping, and will fail if anything significant changes about these roads. Scientists studying automated vehicles think it'll be several decades before a self-driving car can successfully do the following:

* identify debris/potholes in the road and make good decisions about what to do with them
* correctly handle unexpected detours
* drive in the rain
* drive in the snow
* decide what to do with an unexpected mechanical failure

I am 28, know a decent amount about the research, and am unconvinced that I'll see a self-driving car in my lifetime. Possibly, but unlikely. Driving requires a human brain, and the act of driving requires an incredibly sophisticated sense of decision-making that is simply beyond the ability of computer science to simulate. There are massive AI problems in driving that remain unsolved, that nobody even knows how to proceed on.

Google likes to tell people that the major scientific problems have been solved, that the rest is just some engineering concerns, but the real threat is REGULATIONZ. This is of course totally self-serving, and rather undermined by some scientists working at MIT, Caltech, Cambridge University, the University of Tokyo, Università di Parma, the Federal University of Espírito Santo, etc., who point out that Google's cars cannot drive at all in 99% of the country, and cannot drive totally autonomously in the 1% they're allowed to roam in. Google's PR campaign has simply glossed over the profound challenges which remain - which I'm sure is great for stockholders, but very embarrassing for tech journalists.

Or, in other words: we haven't figured out self-driving trains. We're not even close. What on Earth makes you think that cars are easier?

Hold on there buster

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My friend's Mercedes is pretty much capable of driving itself on the highway already via active cruise control and lane "assist". I believe that Teslas are capable of the same. I'm not saying that we can expect cars to be driving around Boston by themselves anytime soon (and perhaps never given our propensity for jay walking and such), but it seems likely that you and I are going to have some form of self driving car during our life times. Also, there are plenty of self-driving trains. Japan and Singapore for example have totally automated subways systems right now. Setting aside all of the fanciful futurism surrounding self driving cars that is often spouted out by Google, there are very significant economic motivators for self driving cars, particularly in the heavy trucking industry where drivers make up a large cost. I believe Volvo and Mercedes are both currently working on self-driving long haulers. So its not just Google that is working on this.

Appropriate Bill Gates quote:

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Appropriate Bill Gates quote: "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction."

This is boneheaded

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I bike to work in Cambridge (six miles). I have friends, relatives, and colleagues who would also bike to work, if they could find a relatively direct route that did not force them to ride in skinny bike lanes on bumpy roads through confusing crowded places. Before we waste time and space on some dubious expensive solar-powered pod thing, why not dedicate that same space to separate (elevated? sure, why not? Get the cars out of the mix, we don't need *nearly* so many stop lights, it would be faster and easier) infrastructure for bicycles.


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What if you had car lane-pod lane-bike lane, like they do with trolleys in Europe?

I grew up near Morgantown, WV

I grew up near Morgantown, WV, which has (if memory serves) the first PRT system in the country, or maybe the world.

It seems to work well, but that's a very small city. If anything, Boston could use it in underserved corners to tie into the main T system... Kinda like the Mattapan line, but ultramodern. I seriously doubt we could develop one of these at a reasonable cost, though.

There's no such thing as

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There's no such thing as "individualized mass transit". Like, it's a direct self-contradiction there. Either transit is individualized, everyone in their own little pod, or it's mass transit, which benefits from economies of scale when not everyone is in their own little pod. And if we're going to put everyone into little pods, it's a hell of a lot cheaper (though obviously not all that safe) to keep all those pods at grade. Once computers are clever enough, maybe we can let them take over the control functions from humans though.

May work great, until day 2,

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May work great, until day 2, when someone confuse the thing for an automated public toilet, and CBS News is all over it. This is Boston after all.

Fully agree with commenter making the case for bike lanes instead. For less than $1 Billion in infrastructure (1/10th of the pods budget), Boston could become THE biking capital of the country. Added bonus: People wouldn't have to pay a penny to get around, and get fitter as they go. Instilling such an idea to the likes of Councillor Murphy may be the greatest challenge...

Re: can't scale, costly, no space, biking, self-driving

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I'd like to offer a summary of all the posts and respond to all of them.

Re: PRT can't scale, is low-capacity, requires expensive infrastructure, no space for it in a city, old concept

Yes, PRT is an old concept. It was first proposed in 1953, and Morgantown, WV was the first system in 1976 (and still in operation).
There have been many systems proposed (over 40). Most, if not all, can't scale, take too much room, offer low-capacity, and require state funds to buy and maintain.

It's a lot like the "tablet market" before the iPad came out. The tablets were ugly, slow, heavy, and costly. Then, came the iPad.

So, the "iPad" equivalent is TransitX. We will be providing mobility as a service (MaaS) that requires no public funding from government. The simulations and models show that it scales in capacity and reach to a city with the density of Beijing, and certainly a city as small as Boston. It's an ultra-light suspended monorail with pods that weight less than 150 pounds that can carry a family of 4 non-stop between pickup and drop-off at elevated stops that require less space on our sidewalks than bus shelters. You can see some photos at

Re: invest more in public transit
Why? it has proven that it can't handle peak demands without crowding, can't operating well during winter storms, and is so costly that each trip costs $6 ($4 is subsidized by your taxes)

Re: self-driving cars or more bicycles are the solution
There is a lot of hype around self-driving cars, but the reality is that it doesn't create significantly more capacity and the change-over would take decades and cost billions. Bikes are nice, but could only provide service for a fraction of the commuters (1.8% today) and don't offer good service in rain and winter conditions.

Innovation is coming, though. But it won't come from government. We have seen the power of private companies such as Zipcar, Uber, and Hubway to bring us real transit innovations.

Stay tuned and keep an eye open for TransitX, a Boston-based startup. We know what is necessary to make it transit function as it should and deliver superior urban mobility.

If you're going to use the

If you're going to use the comment section to post a little free advertising, at least have the courtesy to register an account.

Personal Rapid Transit Pods

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A little off topic, or is it? How will we provide air conditioning in those 150 lb. TransitX pods or similar pods of which there need to be hundreds to carry the people relying on the system? People will not want to ride the system where in a matter of minutes the small pod that is mostly transparent plastic, if without air conditioning, could get up to over 100 degrees inside.