Nestled in the green foothills of the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia is a college town, Morgantown, pop. 31,000, that is home to what was once hailed as the future of public transportation in the United States.
The system would not look out of place in a sketch from the Jetsons or the desk of Buckminster Fuller: driverless podcars that glide mindlessly across an elevated guideway running between five stations through the town. This is the PRT, short for personal rapid transit, a federally funded project that was once believed to be the answer for traffic clogged towns and cities around the country.
Built in the early 1970s, Morgantown’s PRT is the product of an uniquely American pursuit: space-age technology employed in the service of speed and personalization. With a capacity designed for about 20 people, the podcars are fraction of the size of a regular subway car and travel up to 30 miles per hour. And unlike subway or bus rides that stop along every stop of its route, the PRT’s destination is determined by the press of a button in the station, meaning it doesn’t make any superfluous stops for its riders. The 70 or so podcars ferry more than than 15,000 students and workers around the small city, which is home to West Virginia University and its sprawling, hilly campus, every day.
But much of the PRT’s future as a transportation model ended in Morgantown: to date, it remains the most ambitious personal rapid transit system of scale in the world. Plans for similar systems to be built in other cities, including Chicago, have collapsed over the years, though more modest proposals have been built at London’s Heathrow Airport and in Abu Dhabi. Still, a lot can be learned about the future of public transportation today from this project of the past.
The idea for the PRT was born in the 1950s and 1960s as the United States reached its height as a world power and the country was buzzing with space-age designs and big dreams about the future. This was the era of anything-is-possible thinking articulated by futuristic World’s Fairs, and a relentless fascination with technological innovation and the ways it could improve the lives of a growing middle-class.
Inspired by the potential of new technology and problems with the growth of personal car use in increasingly crowded cities and suburbs, the White House began to look for new transportation models in the early 1960s.
The idea for a PRT had already been percolating in academic circles by then. “By that time, there were at least six people that can say they independently discovered PRT and wrote it up,” said J.E. Anderson, an engineer and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota who has been a longtime proponent of PRT systems.
A 1968 report addressed to Congress from the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, which had been created by Lyndon B. Johnson a few years earlier, Tomorrow’s Transportation, spotlighted personal rapid transit as one of a handful of promising transportation solutions for smaller towns and cities around the country.
With its pastoral setting, Morgantown may seem like it would have been an unlikely place for such a cutting edge federal project. But the small town was choked by traffic, and perhaps most importantly, it had the backing of two prominent West Virginia legislators, both Democrats: Sen. Robert. C Byrd, infamous for his skill at securing funding for his state, and Rep. Harley O. Staggers.
Boeing won the federal contract to build the project, testing the cars at the same Washington facility where some of the Apollo mission’s lunar rovers had been developed. The space-age comparisons don’t end there: President Richard Nixon reportedly compared the push for better public transportation systems to the work it took land a man on the moon in the previous decade.
There were high hopes that Morgantown’s system would be the first of personal rapid transit systems. “If it is successful in Morgantown,” the Times wrote in 1971, “Federal officials believe it should work in any small city similarly in need of public transportation.”
But the project was plagued by delays, cost overruns, and a dispute between federal and local authorities that nearly lead to its demolition. By the time the first three stations opened in 1975, projected costs had swelled to more than $120 million, well over earlier forecasts that ranged from $18 to $55 million.
Instead of serving as a model for cities, the project may have scared others away. Other systems proposed around the country were never realized, including a 1970s plan in Denver, and later, an ambitious proposal for Chicago helmed by Raytheon that fizzled out in the early 2000s after a decade of cost overruns and missteps.
There were hopes more recently that the system built in the planned city of Masdar City, which was greenlit in 2008, would serve similarly as a model. But ambitions for that project, which was funded by the oil rich emirate, were scaled back during the economic crisis.
Robbert Lohmann, the Chief Commercial Officer of the Netherlands-based company that worked on that project, 2getthere, sees great benefits in the promise of the PRT.
“We have an expression in Dutch: public transportation takes you from a place where you are not to a place you don’t want to go to, at a time you don’t want to travel at, in the company who those you don’t want to be with, for a fee you’re unwilling to pay,” he said. “So if you take all those negatives and you look at PRT, it all turns them into positives.”
Still, Lohmann says he believes that PRT systems are best for large corporate campuses, theme parks, and universities but not as an urban or suburban transportation system, citing its construction costs and lack of capacity.
“I believe that if it would have had that potential it would have been realized already,” he said.
There are other ways the PRT’s legacy lives on. Alain Kornhauser, an engineering professor and director of the Program in Transportation at Princeton University, describes it as a precursor to automated “people mover” systems that link rail lines and move passengers at airports.
Kornhauser believes the PRT’s promise of automated and personalized public transportation will be fulfilled by networks of driverless cars in the coming years.
“We might not have gotten there with PRT but I’m very optimistic we’ll get there with driverless vehicles,” he said. Kornhauser said the ability to use of existing infrastructure—the roads and highways that are the recipients of the vast majority of public transportation spending—is one of the huge advantages that automated cars have.
There are those who still believe in the benefits the PRT could offer, if only legislators and taxpayers were willing to fund it. J.E. Anderson, an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota, sees the PRT’s inability to catch on in the United States as a failure of imagination.
“In civilian technology, fear discourages any innovation,” he said. “New ideas in urban systems are not appreciated. While in the military they build the most advanced thing possible.”
Anderson says he has an investor willing to front $30 million on a PRT project and is currently in talks with some undisclosed cities in Minnesota to build a pilot program.
In West Virginia, the PRT’s successes are evident. It has never had a fatality or major accident in its more than four decades of operation. The University recently began $120-150 million retrofit of the system after finding that it was the best way to get its students around.
“Build and they will come,” said Clement Solomon, the Director of Transportation and Parking at West Virginia University. “Some of this transportation infrastructure, if you put it in the right place, people will ride it.”
Morgantown’s PRT remains an artifact of bygone era, a testament to both the benefits of ambitious government-funded projects, and their pitfalls. And it is a reminder of how significantly pared down our national ambitions are now for publically funded transportation projects.
“We’ve had now more than one full generation of sort of liberation from regulation and big government,” said Anthony Perl, a professor of Urban studies and political science at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and the author of numerous books on transportation and public policy. “Government does not steer urban or suburban development in the US, the market does. And the market is allergic to the kind of investments and risks that are involved in building a complete community.”
Much of the ambitious thinking about the future of transportation now is in the invisible hands of the private sector, the world of tech and Silicon Valley, the ideas moguls of the 21st century. Whether the private sector’s networks of driverless cars will be able to help untangle our traffic-clogged cities remains an open question.
“Government is not equipped to maintain existing transit systems, and what little resources are available usually get eaten up in crisis mode management,” said Perl, referring to the New York’s ongoing issues with its aging and overburdened subway system. “So there’s nothing left over for the more creative ambitious approach.” He said that he could see a PRT being built in a place like China, with its rapid growth and pro-active government involvement in funding infrastructure.
“You’ve got all of the ingredients for the future that never arrived in the United States,” he said.