good ol' PRT

Friday, November 19, 2004, at 07:57AM

By Eric Richardson

Salon's running a story today about SkyWeb Express, a personal rapid transit (PRT) concept from a company in Minnesota. The article presents a lot of cost numbers that make the technology seem vastly more economical than traditional transit concepts. For instance,

SkyWeb Express may also be the answer to the seemingly impossible quandary that every environmental advocate faces: how to make green technologies cost-effective. Taxi 2000 estimates that installation of SkyWeb Express would cost $10 million per mile -- nearly five times less than the cost of light rail and 10 times less than heavy rail. And operating costs at 38 cents per passenger mile (compared to $3.43 for heavy rail and $1.42 for light rail) mean that SkyWeb Express could operate on a break-even basis -- and therefore without the government subsidies that mass transit, which operates at a loss, relies on.

The company's web site offers a cost breakdown. Take a look at this cost analysis. What particularly interests me isn't their capital cost numbers (though I'd never believe capital numbers on paper until I saw the system implemented somewhere), it's their farebox numbers. Their first example system has 33 million passenger miles per year on an eight mile loop. Ok, I can see that. But from that passenger load they get a farebox intake of $29.3mil. Since they give passenger miles and not boardings I don't know exactly what fare they were using, but I'd say the minimum is about $1 (I don't see that number of people using transit for trips much shorter than a mile). I don't see people paying that.

I think what really bothers me about PRT is the sell they use. Consider this from the opening paragraphs of the Salon article:

What really makes PRT different from mass transit is that it combines the convenience and luxury of a taxi with the efficiency of subway and bus travel: Rather than packing into a large carriage with a hundred smelly strangers, with PRT you get a private car.

The sell is isolation from other passengers. You live in the city, but you don't want to have to endure the presence of others. That should sell well in LA.