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Cover Story

Rail break

Meet the vanguard of high concepts in transit

MT photo: Bruce Giffin
Detroit's Marsden Burger has a different idea for moving people.
The cabintaxi system being tested in West Germany in the 1970's.
Second in a series about transportation issues in Southeast Michigan
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Published 1/18/2006

As a student earning his master's degree in urban geography at Ohio's Kent State University in the mid-1970s, Marsden Burger thought it could be just a few years before technological advances would move innovative modes of transportation from the realm of futuristic visions to a concrete-and-steel reality.

By 1980, when Burger came to Detroit as part of the team building the city's automated People Mover, it seemed as if that timeline was not far off target. At that point, there were some who questioned whether the public would even ride an automated system that had no driver. Part of the reason for building the system, he says, was to prove that they would.

But now, more than 25 years after he moved to Motown, the high-tech transit future he envisioned as a grad student remains mostly that — a vision.

There's good reason for that, say critics who contend that these concepts haven't made the transition to reality because they aren't workable or are too expensive. Or both.

Proponents remain undaunted. Go to the Web site (faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans) maintained by University of Washington professor emeritus Jerry Schneider, and you'll find dozens of innovative approaches to transporting masses of people, from computer-controlled electric cars spaced within a foot of each other as they zip along specially modified roadways, to small Star Trek-like vehicles floating on magnetic cushions, to automated pods that carry people and cargo on elevated guideways.

Although convinced that most of the individual concepts displayed on Schneider's site will never materialize, Burger remains as certain as ever that some new modes of transportation will become commonplace. Considering that he's president of Cabintaxi Corp., a company involved in what's known in the industry as personal rapid transit (PRT), but which he prefers to call small vehicle systems, it's not surprising that he continues to think that future will one day materialize. What's been shaken is his certainty that it will appear anytime soon. Instead of being a few years in the offing, as he thought back in his college days, he now hesitates to even guess how long it might be before there's widespread implementation of the type of advanced systems his company wants to sell.

"Would I like to see it in my lifetime?" says Burger, who's 60. "Absolutely. Will I? I don't know."

One thing he does know, he says, is that it's not the science behind these systems that's come up short. Unlike most of the other PRT projects found on Schneider's' site, Burger says, the system his company is marketing isn't just a concept. Developed by the West German government working in concert with the private sector three decades ago, it's already been built and thoroughly tested.

Advances in computerized automation systems, high-efficiency linear motors and electromagnetic technology have made many of these concepts technologically feasible.

"Those three elements are so powerful," Burger says, "they can't be stopped."

What's lacking, he says, is the kind of leadership necessary to make the leap from a society that relies upon modes of transportation largely based on technologies first developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Trains are still pulled by engineer-controlled locomotives that run on tracks. Cars, with few exceptions, are still powered by the internal combustion engine. Light-rail systems are essentially the same as streetcars that proliferated in the early 1900s. Even the jet engine has been with us for more than 60 years.

Add to this scenario the confluence of another set of factors: Dwindling oil reserves and corresponding increases in gasoline prices, the global warming caused by burning fossil fuels, and car-clogged roadways we can't afford to maintain, let alone expand, are combining to create a present transportation structure that appears to be less and less sustainable.

Change is occurring. Hybrid cars offer better fuel efficiency but still burn gas and still add to the problem of clogged highways. Hydrogen fuel cells offer the hope of clean-running autos, but even if they can be brought to market in a decade or two, unless there's a major technological breakthrough, massive amounts of energy will be required to produce the hydrogen needed. And, as with hybrids, no fuel cell is going to reduce the amount of time drivers spend sitting in traffic jams.

But we're not getting rid of our cars. They provide a level of convenience and freedom that's unmatched. As Burger says, "No public transit system will get me out to where I want to hunt pheasant."

What the next wave of transit systems can do, he says, is both help save cities like Detroit and keep the United States economically competitive with the likes of China, South Korea, India and European countries.

The idea of personal rapid transit systems is not a new one. The concept has been traced back to at least the early 1950s, when a New York state transportation planner named Donn Fichter began research that led to his 1964 book, Individualized Automatic Transit and the City.

Although concepts vary, PRTs in general feature small, electric-powered pods that can carry one to six people. Because they lack the weight of something like a typical subway or light-rail car, the support structures for these smaller vehicles can be built much more cheaply than the sizable concrete pillars and guideways used to hold something as big as the Detroit People Mover. Another advantage is that the smaller vehicles, which are completely automated and powered by electricity, can be dispatched across the system with greater frequency, conceivably reducing the wait time for passengers. And they can be summoned on demand, which means there are no long waits during off-peak hours when, as is the case with existing modes of transit, service is scaled back to reduce costs. Also, instead of stopping at every station as subway cars do, riders could be taken directly to their chosen destination, cutting travel time significantly.

The concept began to get serious consideration after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in a 1966 report titled "Tomorrow's Transportation," found that PRT potentially had much merit.

With the Nixon administration keen on the idea, a pilot project was initiated for the University of West Virginia campus. Snafus plagued the effort from the outset, and there were huge cost overruns. There was heavy pressure to complete the project — which, because of the size of the cars involved, can't truly be called PRT; rather it belongs to a class known as "group rapid transit" — before the 1972 election. During the first public demonstration, with Nixon's daughter Tricia on board, there was an embarrassing malfunction. Much negative publicity followed as the project was labeled a boondoggle.

"It got such bad press, the government just said the hell with it, we're not going to do this anymore," Schneider says. "They wiped out funding across the board."

The irony is that, once the bugs were worked out, the system worked fine, and continues to be used effectively today. It's considered by some experts to be one of the most effective small systems operating in the country.

As research funded by the U.S. government dried up after the fiasco that marked the Morgantown launch, the West German government was investing heavily in a PRT project dubbed Cabintaxi. It was a joint venture that also involved two private companies, and the German Ministry of Research provided 85 percent of the funding, which reached $70 million (about $270 million in today's dollars). What made this system unique was a design that allowed the modules to run above and below the elevated guideway, eliminating the need for the two support systems that would otherwise be required for the cars to run in two directions simultaneously. By 1975, a test facility featuring six stations and 24 fully automated vehicles was up and running. The system was designed to accommodate three-, six-, 12- and 18-passenger vehicles, as well as freight carriers. But before the project could expand beyond the research phase, the German government, facing severe budget constraints, killed it in 1979, just before establishing a pilot project in the city of Hamburg.

Which brings us back to Marsden Burger.

Burger stayed in Detroit after coming here in 1980 to help build the city's federally funded People Mover. During the early '80s, in addition to his work here, he also marketed other transportation systems including light rail — which, like the People Mover, was produced by Canada's Urban Transportation Development Corp., a crown corporation owned by the province of Ontario.

But he believed small vehicle systems were better than light rail because they're potentially more convenient, and because of that the public would be more likely get on board. Although the U.S. government has continued to fund light-rail projects, which guarantees there'll be a market for them, Burger says he yearned to get behind a product he could support wholeheartedly. And that wasn't light rail, which he insists on calling "streetcars." He doesn't see them as cost-effective.

"If all I wanted to do was make a lot of money, I could have kept selling streetcars," he says. "But I'm not the kind of person who can sell something he doesn't believe in."

So, in 1985 he formed the Cabintaxi Corp. and, backed by a small group of investors, acquired rights to the German system.

It hasn't been easy going. In the years since founding the company, Burger has held a number of other jobs, from transit consultant, both in this country and abroad, to a two-year stint in the early '90s running the People Mover. It was also planned as a transit hub, with rail lines extending out, but funding for that more extensive portion of the project never materialized. Although the implementation may have been flawed, he insists the technology measured up. Burger notes that similar systems in Vancouver, British Columbia, and New York City's Kennedy Airport are covering operating costs "through the fare box."

As for Cabintaxi, Burger isn't currently looking to government officials at any level as his customers. For one thing, his company can't afford it. He says it could take an investment of $1 million to research and produce the sort of detailed plan required for a municipality or region that's shopping for a rapid-transit system.

It's an approach the University of Washington's Schneider can understand. "There's no federal interest at this point," he says.

Also, there's a chicken-and-egg problem. Risk-averse politicians aren't going to stake their careers on a system that hasn't already been shown to work in real-world settings elsewhere, but that kind of track record can't be established until someone is willing to take the chance and give it a try.

There's also opposition on other fronts.

A decade ago, Vukan R. Vuchic, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, had this to say about personal rapid transit in an article published in the magazine Urban Transport International: "The PRT concept is imagined to capture the advantages of personal service by private car with the high efficiency of rapid transit. Actually, the PRT concept combines two mutually incompatible elements of these two systems: very small vehicles with complicated guideways and stations. Thus, in central cities, where heavy travel volumes could justify investment in guideways, vehicles would be far too small to meet the demand. In suburbs, where small vehicles would be ideal, the extensive infrastructure would be economically unfeasible and environmentally unacceptable.

"The PRT concept is thus a totally unrealistic 'Buck Rogers' concept for which there are no applications where it would be operated efficiently and economically."

Burger says that Cabintaxi's ability to accommodate different size vehicles addresses some of those concerns.

There are other objections, ranging from what some call the visual pollution of elevated guideways to liability and safety questions, and issues of handicap accessibility and overall costs.

And some of the fiercest critics of PRT are light-rail advocates. As Schneider points out, light-rail fans are happy with that technology, and don't want to see projects they support jeopardized.

"The old systems are the enemy," says Bill Garrison, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. "Old systems suffocate new ones."

The way Burger sees it, the decision not to seek out business in the public sector doesn't mean there's a lack of need, just the absence of a "market."

Eventually, he believes, that market will be there. But for now, he's focusing on the private sector. A large software company with a sprawling campus or a medical center with several hospitals are considered good targets. The key is saving time, which equates to saving money.

So far, though, it's a pitch no corporation's been willing to take a swing at. "We've done a ton of analyses with companies," Burger says. "We're in the process of bidding projects. The potentials are there. It's just that getting across the final line is something we have not done yet."

Garrison, for one, says that pursuing business in the private sector is a smart approach. "There are market niches around," says Garrison, who espouses a decidedly libertarian philosophy. "The minute you get public sector investment, all sorts of terrible things start to go wrong."

That's a line Burger doesn't completely buy. After all, the system he's pushing exists because of government investment — the German government. And the Canadian government owned the company he worked for previously. So it's not government per se that's the problem.

"I think it's unfair to say government isn't able," Burger says. "It's more complex than that. The problem is when a government allows itself to be encumbered by complacency.

"But the future is in automation. And at some point people in government are going to ask the question, 'Why should we build a manually operated system if it doesn't give better service, if it doesn't lower operating costs?'"

He also believes that local governments are eventually going to realize that, as traffic congestion becomes more and more of a problem, these smaller, more personal systems have the potential to become more convenient than cars when trying to get around cities. It will be faster, which means people will use it. And cities will become more livable.

"I could have walked away from this and just have done consulting work," Burger says. "Every day I weigh the question of whether it's worth it to continue trying to push this. And every time I see the power of this technology.

"I believe this is the world's most effective transportation system, and the idea of letting it die is not appealing to me. So I'm going to keep trying to find a way to get it utilized."

See Also:

Curt Guyette
la dualmode
Going down a different road.

This article is part of "Roads Not Working," a continuing series about transportation issues in southeast Michigan.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or cguyette@metrotimes.com.

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