Thesis: Sustainable Suburb Silver Bullet: PRT Shuttle + New Mobility Halves Solo Commutes

Full 188-page peer-reviewed report: 188 page Word doc

ABSTRACT: A five-mile, $50M Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) "shuttle" system is proposed for Palo Alto's Stanford Research Park (SRP), complementing and significantly increasing the attractiveness of commuter rail, carpool, vanpool, bicycle, and bus commutes for the center's 20,000 employees. The office park is transformed into a transit village of two square miles. PRT provides non-stop, no-wait, 30 mph service over the commute's "last mile," and services mid-day trips. PRT is an emerging technology under development in Minnesota, Texas, and the United Kingdom. In addition to PRT, a very comprehensive "door to door mobility" service is proposed, supplying both high tech (web/cellular) and "high touch" (personal) solutions to meet SRP employees' complex transportation needs. Dr. Susan Shaheen defines "new mobility" service as "a new transportation approach that focuses on pairing clusters of smart technologies with existing transportation options to create a coordinated, intermodal transportation system that could substitute for the traditional auto."

A complex travel demand analysis was conducted on a sample of suburban employees, of which 89% drive alone. When presented with a hypothetical Year 2008 commute alternative scenario, where PRT solved the "last mile" problem and new mobility services solved specific objections, drive alone commutes dropped to only 45%. Extrapolating to the entire office park, 6,600 cars per day are removed, freeing 50 acres of parking for reclamation, conservatively worth $150M. It appears possible to eliminate traffic congestion and air pollution without lifestyle sacrifice -- a result consistent with the Bush Administration's energy policy philosophy. Commuters intend to take 1.32 PRT trips per day for a total of 26,000 trips per day for the entire job center. At $0.75 fare, $5M annual fare box revenue is produced. Additional revenue sources and cost savings total $16.9M per year, profitably covering PRT capital, operating, and maintenance costs. The model for Palo Alto plausibly translates to other job-rich major employment centers.

Proposed are new applications of cellular location tracking technology and Wi-Fi (802.11) enabled handsets to increase the competitiveness of suburban commute alternatives. Cellular phones evolve to become a commuter's "command center", an integral part of the workday. The following applications are proposed: A) "TrakRide" to improve the reliability of carpool rendezvous and increase courteous, punctual behavior. B) "NextTrain" to improve the reliability of train-shuttle connections. C) "HomeSafe" to verify that carpools amongst strangers operate safely. D) "QuickCar" to provide five-minute access to cars for centralized car sharing and emergency ride home, using "wireless door key." E) "SpyKids" to maintain secure custody of children during unaccompanied shuttle trips. F) "NextSpace" to direct commuters to available parking spaces, with wireless access to automated, shared parking lots. A central database, known as "Big Sister," maintains personal data to support these applications. The "MatchRide" personalized web-based ridematching service reduces carpool formation problems. TrakRide and HomeSafe are patent pending.

For Palo Alto, annual vehicle miles traveled (VMT) reductions are 46M miles and annual pounds of carbon dioxide reduced are 33M pounds. There are approximately 6M U.S. employees working in the 200 largest office parks. Extrapolating the Palo Alto model to the other major office parks removes 1.98M cars and provides the following annual reductions: 11.B vehicle miles traveled, 424M gallons of gas, 8.4B pounds carbon dioxide.


Full Report Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Interviews
  • New Mobility (TrakRide, etc)
  • Survey
  • Appendix: Survey Instruments
  • Appendix: Smart Parking: Fifty-Cent, Gated, TMA-Operated Parking
  • Appendix: Local Workforce Housing Preference (For In-Fill Housing Within SRP). Housing

Housing preference is an increasingly popular city planning topic and is developing into a specialty area within the profession. Many cities are asking for housing preferences, especially for public employees, but the area is immature. Environmental Impact Reports prepared for major residential projects increasingly have a Fair Housing Impact Analysis section.

In-fill housing within office parks has huge potential benefits: locating housing next to jobs will: decrease commute times and particulate/greenhouse emissions; allow workers to walk and bike to work; reduce regional pressure to growth outside of inner-ring suburbs; preserve the greenbelt; enable new, lucrative in-fill real-estate development; make office parks less deserted at night and on the weekend; permit shared parking between complimentary office and residential uses; allow land-constrained upscale cities like Palo to meet their state mandated "fair share" housing element goals while protecting high-priced detached single family homes.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) permits thoughtful plans for local workforce preference housing. Understandably, developers resist pioneering such preferences; accordingly, the public sector should shoulder some of the initial burden until the model is proven. Instead of piecemeal evolution of preferences, a larger policy debate should be initiated. A specific proposal is presented for Stanford Research Park (SRP) in-fill housing, but the scheme is applicable to other residential projects in job-rich suburbs.

  • Appendix: Toxic Release Risk Management

Stanford Research Park (SRP) contains two superfund sites and 21 additional toxic groundwater sites. These resulted from printed circuit board manufacturing and gas station operations that were discontinued more than 15 years ago. Brownfield development and groundwater issues are well understood, to the point where one of the superfund sites is being transformed into a public soccer field. One environmental obstacle remains, accidental atmospheric toxin release risk, which prevents in-fill housing within SRP. The main hurdles are the lack of examples of this type of development and government's refusal to endorse and "jumpstart" this concept - lenders won't lend against a new real-estate concept, so "getting the first one built" is hard. Compounding matters, this development creates a sizable regional economic benefit that cannot be easily captured by cost-bearing companies.

Alza Corporation's unsuccessful attempt in the 80's to improve their SRP hazardous materials facility has influenced the current Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group (SVMG) and Palo Alto Fire Department positions against this type of in-fill. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) is also pre-disposed against such efforts.

A careful, broad political/planning effort should be able to modify opposing viewpoints to a more nuanced risk-based approach, while still encompassing the important original concerns.

  • Appendix: Economics: System costs, annual farebox revenue, additional revenue, environmental benefits


Reviews - Selected Comments

Jeral Poskey, Business Development Director, Taxi2000.

The study certainly added to the already established body of market research, and it was yet another indication that demand for a personal automated transit system will be high. But the study and subsequent meetings took it a step further, investigating some of the institutional barriers to deployment of a system. Large organizations have large needs. They also have large concerns that must be addressed. From the study, I could see that a solution is definitely possible. In the right setting, a system like SkyWeb Express can offer a tremendous benefit to an area with very little downside.

Ian Ford, Board Member, Advanced Transit Association

I have read part of the 188-page study by Cities21. It is worth studying. It's a comprehensive solution that isn't just a push for PRT, and is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It's a proposal to implement a VARIETY of things in a CERTAIN way to solve well-identified problems, rather than a push to implement one thing to solve vague problems (the norm!). Their analytic methods are believable - well thought through. They include numeric evidence but are not blindly numeric.

Robert Cervero, U.C. Berkeley Professor of City and Regional Planning:

The report is very good.

It's an impressive undertaking, obviously done with a lot of passion, not to mention smarts. I found the subtle insights and many nuances about why people commute the way they do to be fascinating. While I agree it's hard to draw much statistical inferences from the survey results, in my opinion this work is as notable for its method and approach to stated preference than for the bottom line results. The care taken to get people to "feel" the PRT experience was extraordinary -- a scale model, a computer animation, slides,Q&A, etc. My critiques are minor. I think you understate the disutility of transfering and waiting, thus overstating the potential market share of smart commuting/PRT. You note that people only weigh out of pocket costs. In truth, the fixed and maintenance part of car ownership is subliminally treated as a "subscription fee" that middle class Americans endure to participate in society -- we pretty much write it off. There's a few other quibbles here and there, though all and all, this was first-rate work.

Congratulations on a fine piece of work. You well realize that the odds are heavily stacked against operationalizing or commercializing this, outside of an airport or Disneyland environment. My sense, however, is you're doing important seminal work and helping to lay the seeds so that in 50, 100, 500, or ??? years from now when gas prices are so high and car-dependence so serious that the market for PRT will be there, such research will be invaluable.

Jerry Schneider:

Review of 1st Draft of a Professional Paper entitled PRT Shuttle + New Mobility Halves SOV Commutes, by Steve Raney, July, 2003

This paper presents an approach to the evaluation of a strategy for reducing the proportion of drive-alone commuters to the Stanford Research Park (SRP) in Palo Alto, California. It defines a comprehensive, multi-component, detailed strategy for achieving this goal and suggests order of magnitude costs and benefits of applying it under a set of assumptions intended to represent the Year 2008.

One important component of the strategy is a 5-mile Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) network that is designed to solve the last mile problem that plagues the drive-alone commuter, as well as those using other non-auto modes. A few extensive interviews are conducted, using a market research approach and they reveal a considerable number of specific problems that would need to be solved before drive-alone commuters would be willing to use an alternative mode for the work-trip. Solutions to these problems are defined and made part of a larger survey of 67 employees of a firm in the SRP. In some cases, positive reactions to these solutions are found, in other cases they are found less likely to be effective.

The survey results are extrapolated to the entire employment base of the SRP (20,000 employees) to obtain an order of magnitude estimate of the likely patronage of the PRT and a parallel reduction in the drive-alone commute proportion. It is estimated that a substantial reduction in the drive-alone commute (from 89% to 46%) could be achieved if all components of the strategy are implemented and that the benefits derived from the reuse of land now used for parking would easily exceed the capital cost of the PRT system. It is also estimated that the fare box revenue from the PRT system would easily cover its likely O&M costs.

These estimates are based on the assumption that it would be feasible and desirable to densify SRP using land currently used for parking together with selective demolitions and redevelopment projects. It is also assumed that by 2008, an economic revival would have occurred and that the market would support such infill projects at this Palo Alto location. It is also assumed that a Transportation Management Association would be formed to conduct this transformation of land use.

The author's main contribution is the design and conduct of a computer-based survey, supplemented by a short PRT education program and personalized commute calculations that provides a useful and interesting preliminary evaluation of a comprehensive strategy for reducing drive-alone commutes together with the possibility of gaining substantial monetary benefits from the redevelopment and densification of an elderly office park.

Because the survey respondents were self-selected, all from one company and very few in number, the conclusions and extrapolations made have to be interpreted cautiously. They are more suggestive than definitive. But, the survey methodology devised is bound to be very useful for subsequent analyses of this type in similar office-park locations around the country that suffer from severe auto congestion which is expected to get worse in the future.

Consultants and planners (both public and private) who do such strategy evaluation studies on a regular basis should find this approach to be very useful in improving the methods they currently use. Inventors and developers of electronic gadgets should also find the suggestions regarding the needs of commuters for real-time information about the status of various component of the commute trip to be very helpful in thinking about how existing products and new products might be modified/developed to support improvements in the quality and efficiency of real-time information about the commute trip.

A strong case is made for the economic viability and functional utility of the PRT system as being a necessary component of such a strategy. Even though the patronage estimates must be interpreted only as order-of-magnitude values, they are more than sufficient to justify the investment in the PRT network to help solve the last mile problem for those willing to try alternatives to their current drive-alone commute .

My main concern regarding these estimates has to do with the physical configuration of the PRT network in the SRP. It is clear that nearly all persons arriving/departing at the CalTrain station would be very likely to use the PRT system as their trips would often be a mile or more in length (i.e. at 30 mph, a ride of 1 mile would take 2 minutes). It is estimated that 15.5% of the employees would arrive/depart via CalTrain in 2008.

Some questions that arose during my review are as follows.

How does one assess the redevelopment potential of the land devoted to parking in the SRP compared to competition in other nearby locations? Is it reasonable to assume that there will not be more work-at-home, teleconferencing and other developments that might lessen the need for everyday commuting in the future? Many people think that the cost of gasoline will rise sharply in the future. Will the cost of commuting also rise instead of staying at today's levels?

To what extent would the redevelopment plan for the SRP with the PRT network in operation be devoted to increasing the supply of housing and retail within the SRP and significantly improving the pedestrian environment? Would this be encouraged/allowed by the City of Palo Alto or would they have any say in the matter?

I would like to see more attention given to the assessment of non-work mid-day travel on the PRT system during the day, evenings and especially weekends. I believe that attracting reasonable levels of such patronage is highly important. I hope that this issue can be emphasized in your suggestions for future research activity.

I would expect that household attributes like income, auto ownership and work locations for household members and number/age of children would impact mode choice decisions in significant ways in most cases. Also, one of the often cited benefits of giving up the drive-alone commute mode is the savings in auto insurance, operating and repair costs that arise from giving up a second or third auto.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the paper and found it to be quite stimulating and creative. I hope you will find my comments to be helpful in moving it forward to a subsequent widespread distribution.

Jerry Schneider
Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning and Civil Engineering
University of Washington, Seattle
July 5th, 2003