Thursday, October 28, 2010

Is Podcar another false promise?

Since the concept of a people mover at San Jose Airport was approved with Measure A ten years ago, the project eventually proved to be too expensive to build and operate, not very useful, and ineffective. Nowadays, the city is hosting a Personal Rapid Transit conference, in which PRT proponents are saying that San Jose Airport could have a people mover-like system without the price tag.

PRT, or pod car is a concept that has existed for decades, with the promise of fast, frequent, and non-stop service. Renderings of such systems often feature small cars hanging off a slim elevated track. What PRT doesn't have is a track record of daily revenue service. The PRT proponents are desperately looking for sponsoring cities, along with funding, to prove their concepts.

San Jose politicians are trying to look for a "creative" solution to a superficial problem and while dismissing realistic solutions. The simple way to bring rail to San Jose airport is to extend the light rail system from 1st Street into the airport. Light rail only needs to extend a mile to serve both terminals A and B. Light rail already serves Downtown San Jose and connects with Caltrain, Amtrak, ACE (and possibly BART in Milpitas and high speed rail at Diridon Station). Unlike peoplemover or pod car, no separate maintenance facility is needed for light rail.

View Untitled in a larger map

One has to wonder why San Jose is pretending to be progressive on transportation by promoting PRT while actually moving backwards by ignoring light rail. Cities like Portland and Baltimore have light rail located directly at the terminal. Sacramento and Los Angeles are planning to extend their light rail systems to airport as well.

VTA light rail is drawing fewer riders than similar systems in other cities because the light rail lacks destinations that are not convenient to drive. If the light rail can directly serve the airport, it will change how the system is used and perceived. While many people have brought up the idea for many years, it was repeatedly ignored by the City of San Jose and VTA (which the City has a controlling stake on).

While the PRT proponents welcome the attention received in San Jose, it is another loss of opportunity for a more cost effective transportation. Even if the PRT has proven to be a reliable technology, it will still be slower and less convenient for riders than extending light rail directly to the airport. Even if PRT has applications beyond the airport, its proclaimed advantages can easily be met by automobile and bike sharing, along with better bike and ped infrastructures.


arcady said...

Great, but that doesn't solve the problem of linking the airport to the BART station at Santa Clara. Never mind that said station doesn't exist, and probably won't for quite a while to come, if ever. I'm wondering how this light rail service would operate though? Perhaps restructure the service as a Mountain View-Alum Rock line, a Santa Teresa-Baypointe line, and a Winchester-Airport line? And if, in the long term, a connection to Santa Clara is deemed desirable, a slightly different alignment could be used: branching off from northbound 1st onto Old Bayshore, running along the edge of 101, crossing under 87, looping around through the now vacant land of the former rental car lots to reach Terminal A, then running to Terminal B (and C, if there's going to be one), then into a tunnel under the airfield and Brokaw Rd to Santa Clara. But the alignment you show here is much cheaper and doesn't preclude this option being added on later.

accountablevta said...

There's no need to connect with anything at Santa Clara. Light rail already goes to downtown San Jose and the Diridon Station. If BART ever goes beyond Berryessa, there would also be light rail connection at downtown and Diridon Station.

If you run a bus, the distance from airport to Berryessa is only slightly longer than to Santa Clara. VTA could extend the 10 to Berryeea. There's no travel benefit for airport users for BART to go to Santa Clara.

For Caltrain, all trains stop at San Jose, but not all stop at Santa Clara. HSR would only stop at San Jose but not Santa Clara.

arcady said...

Well, as far as I can tell, the whole point of this airport connector project was to connect to BART. Which was to be at Santa Clara. I agree that this is somewhat silly in the grand scheme of things. The real value of the connection is for Caltrain and the 22. For Caltrain, going via Downtown adds about 24 minutes (current light rail travel time from Metro/Airport to SJ Diridon), which is quite a while. And Caltrain only skips stops for about 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, while airport travel is just as popular outside of rush hour and on weekends. There's also something to be said for providing a transit connection across the otherwise pretty sizeable barrier of the airport, since there's really no way to get across or around the north side of the airport short of going to Old Ironsides on the 60. This would provide a direct connection between North 1st and El Camino (and the 22/522) westward to Santa Clara and Sunnyvale.

Anonymous said...

Minneapolis is another city with light rail to the airport. it runs from downtown to the airport (under the airport) and then to the Mall of America.

accountablevta said...

Thanks for bring up Minneapolis. I forgot about that system earlier.

Pictures here:

Light rail goes through the airport with two airport stations (the airport has two terminals separated by a runway). It is free to ride between the two airport terminals and essentially the light rail functions as a people mover between the terminals.

San Jose is a city that can easily extend light rail to the airport. But San Jose rather wants to throw money to PRT supporters (and with nothing to show for it) and keep light rail out of the airport.

Hugh Jardonn said...

I agree, the "podcar" concept is a stupid idea


JN said...

What the heck is going on up in the Bay Area with the crazy airport connectors? First the OAC, now a podcar at SJC?

I've flown in to both OAK and SJC and left them on transit. They both have buses that connect them directly to the local rail systems (BART and VTA respectively). Both buses are quick, frequent and effective. The SJC one is even free.

People are willing to take an airport shuttle to their rental car, but rail *HAS* to run direct to the terminal? I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those poor schmucks who doesn't own a car and relies on public transit, and I'd love for the LRT to actually connect to SJC. Anything that saves on annoying transfers that suck the time out of the day. Seriously, I get pretty effing tired of it, and there is quite a qualitative difference between Podcars and connecting the VTA's LRT the small distance to the airport.

Bengt Gustafsson said...

I think it would be a quite large disadvantage for LRT to the airport that the line would get forked, so that typically every other tram would go to the airport, the rest to Santa Clara. This lowers the service level (or, maintaining that, increases the driver and vehicle cost).

The investment cost in 1 mile of tram could easily be higher than for a small podcar system of a few miles such as this one.

The PRT system also has potential to be extended to reach more destinations without causing any trouble for the parts already operating, which is not possible with trams (as discussed above).

While creating a tram line to the terminals may remove some shuttle buses the PRT would remove far of them, by covering nearby hotels and all parkings/car rentals.

arcady said...

Podcars may be a great idea, and they may not. We won't really know until we have some examples of working systems from around the world, which right now we just don't. In fact, it's a bit worrying how long it's taking to get the Heathrow system to revenue service. Unfortunately, the whole podcar idea tends to attract some rather enthusiastic supporters and detractors

Hugh Jardonn said...

Here's an interesting article on the recent PRT conference in San Jose:

Anonymous said...

VTA/MTC will purchase new coaches for service to Berryessa BART between Downtown SJ and Alum Rock LRT...I think 18-30 will be purchased.

Joshua Santos said...

I think podcars will eventually replace both LTR and cars, the problem is making that initial investment to get even a basic system up and running. The cost per mile, flexibility in station placement, and privacy offer the best of both worlds, having your own car and using public transit. It would be amazing to see Silicon Valley be a key innovator in this space.