Mountain View council puts pod cars back in the mix

New study will explore options for driverless people-movers in Mountain View

Taking the initiative, Mountain View is hitting the accelerator on a goal to create a cutting-edge transit system that would zip over the city's traffic jams. At a meeting earlier this month, City Council members agreed to commit $200,000 or more to study a variety of automated transportation systems that could run between the city's downtown transit center and the bustling North Bayshore tech hub.

City officials signaled particular interest in what is known as automated-guideway transit (AGT), a broad term covering driverless systems that move along guideways that usually go above the roadway. By their nature, such systems avoid some of the pricey property acquisition that afflicts many ambitious transportation projects.

At this early stage, council members say they hope to explore a range of opportunities and routes to get a basic idea for how this could work under Mountain View's existing conditions. Along with getting the lay of the land, the council urged city staff to look for private-sector partners, particularly among the cluster of rapidly expanding tech companies that are behind much of the traffic problem.

Councilman Lenny Siegel urged staff to focus on a transit system that runs on electricity and doesn't share the roadway with traffic and only stops at stations. Service on this system should be so frequent that riders wouldn't need to consult a schedule. To start, Siegel said he wanted an initial route to run from the city's downtown transit station to Amphitheater Parkway.

A lead proponent of the effort, Councilman Mike Kasperzak said that the city had a constellation of reasons to rethink local transportation, including that traffic will only get more strained in the coming years. The city has a large slate of new development projects in the pipeline, giving city officials a window for mapping out a new transit route and stations. Politically, Mountain View elected leaders are interested in trying some new ideas, he said.

"What we're asking staff is, 'How do we get the city shovel-ready for a (transit) product that becomes viable?'" Kasperzak said following the meeting. "Now that the city has given staff direction, staff is going to take this seriously."

City officials are banking on the idea that Mountain View will eventually be joined by other partners. Many North Bayshore companies are already participating in a Transportation Management Association, through which they jointly fund a shuttle system for their employees. Council members recommended this group as an obvious partner that could one day manage operations for the transit project.

Other neighboring cities with their own traffic troubles, such as Cupertino or Sunnyvale, may want to cooperate on a larger traffic solution, council members suggested. City officials said they would look for ways to include the Valley Transportation Authority and possibly procure some financial help on the project.

"Whether or not VTA is involved in this system, we have to work with them," said Siegel. "Any funds we seek would have to get their support -- as much as sometimes we'd prefer not to."

Mountain View's interest in creating a new mass transit alternative comes as a number of other large transportation project are already underway. The California High Speed Rail Authority is considering Mountain View's downtown station as its future Midpeninsula stop between San Jose and the San Francisco International Airport. Meanwhile Google, in cooperation with VTA, is funding a $1 million study to extend the light-rail system from Ellis Street through the Moffett Federal Airfield and into North Bayshore.

Kasperzak said that it is still worthwhile for Mountain View to pursue its own transit system. At a price of about $100 million per mile of track, a light-rail extension could be in a tough fight for funding amid a host of other county projects, he said. Meanwhile, an newer system of elevated tracks and automated pod-cars would be easier and cheaper to build, at a cost of about $8 million per mile, he said.

No one mentioned it by name at the meeting last week, but the transit system Mountain View leaders desired seemed to fit the profile for SkyTran, a company based out of the NASA Ames Research Center. SkyTran builds high-speed pod car systems that travel along an overhead electromagnetic rail. Just a few years ago, city officials expressed interest in launching a local pilot project for SkyTran, but they later hesitated after hearing it would cost between $60 million and $130 million.

Council members indicated they would review the transit project in upcoming meeting through the council's Transportation Committee.

At the meeting last week, council members were generally supportive of paying an initial $200,000 for a feasibility study of an automated-guideway transit system. That study will be added to the city's capital-improvement project list for the upcoming fiscal year.

But city leaders were skeptical of an additional $10,000 request to join Urban System Laboratories, a southern California nonprofit that tracks and helps develops large-scale infrastructure projects, according to the city staff report.

Council members say they could not find adequate information about the nonprofit's services or what Mountain View could gain. An initial vote to allocate $10,000 for the membership, which required five votes to pass, ended up failing when Siegel, John Inks and John McAlister all voted in opposition.

A second motion without the Urban System Laboratories membership passed in a 6-1 vote with Inks dissenting.

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6 people like this
Posted by Steve Ly
a resident of Los Altos
on Feb 18, 2016 at 3:38 pm

Who is going to pay for the "pod cars?"

I hope it is not the taxpayers. Over the last several elections, voters in Santa Clara County have passed multiple tax and fee increases including VTA's 2000 Measure A ½-cent and 2008 measure B ¼-cent sales taxes, Santa Clara County's Measure A 1/8 cent sales tax, the state prop 30 ¼ cent sales tax and the 2010 Measure B Vehicle Registration Fee of $10. Additionally, we're on the hook to pay back numerous state bond issues including high speed rail, last year's Proposition 1 water bond and the infrastructure bonds of 2006. Let the grossly-misnamed "Silicon Valley Leadership Group" get its fat cat members to pony up.

And of course "pod cars" only seem to get built in niche areas, such as airports or planned communities with car restrictions.

This topic has been discussed at length. I recommend a couple of articles on the Light Rail Now website.

First, there's "Let's Get Real About Personal Rapid Transit" by Ken Avidor. He points out that, "PRT has a solid 30-year record of failure. Its main purpose in recent years seems to have been to provide a cover enabling its proponents to spread disinformation about real, workable transit systems. Except for the occasional laboratory-scale prototype, PRT actually "exists" largely in computerized drawings, in promotional brochures, and in cute, ever-successful animated simulations on the internet."

"The unsubstantiated claims of PRT proponents are always presented in the present tense as if the system is a proven success ... which, of course, it certainly is not. Promoters never seem to fail to bash real transit, such as light rail (LRT), as "old fashioned technology". Sadly, the media rarely check the veracity of PRT publicity and propaganda."

A longer, more technical article is "Personal Rapid Transit â€" Cyberspace Dream Keeps Colliding With Reality." The authors write "Despite the persistent and fervent claims of its promoters, repeated attempts to implement a working PRT system, even in very small-scale scenarios, have invariably failed. Not a single PRT plan, during these promotional efforts over the past 40 years or more, has seen successful implementation even in a small test application, much less a major, heavy-duty, citywide rapid transit application. Early would-be PRT installations, such as the AirTrans system at Dallas-Ft. Worth Regional Airport, and the PRT at West Virginia University at Morgantown, eschewed any attempt to provide true PRT-style, small-vehicle, customized origin-destination service, and were implemented in effect as line-haul automated guideway transit (AGT) peoplemover systems with some innovative features (such as offline stations)."

And finally, the good folks at Light Rail Now have put up a helpful list of links to various Monorail, PRT, AGT, and "Gadget Transit" Analyses at Web Link
Links to the articles cited above are here.

A good article by Setty and Demery points out that "In our view, it is a big waste of time advocating such "gee-whiz" options, given the severe limits of monorails and similar technologies such as PRT, when U.S. transportation problems are almost always sociopolitical and economic, 'not technical' in nature." See Web Link

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Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 18, 2016 at 4:13 pm

I smell good ol' Silicon Valley exceptionalism again. These 1950s-era pipe dreams only fail when those "ordinary" places try them.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 18, 2016 at 4:30 pm

Absolutely great idea. Please go North to Palo Alto too as well as Santa Clara and Sunnyvale. We have terrible traffic here and since so many people work in North Bayshore and commute from here as well as far North as to Facebook, this problem is going to increase. A network of these Pods linking up these large campuses makes sense. The bigger the vision the better the end result will be.

As for cost, yes it will be tremendous. However, I think local residents would be much more inclined to vote for a tax increase that improves traffic in this area rather than South Santa Clara County which is where most dollars go. Also, if Google and others can make buses to San Francisco and other places a viable option, then surely they can be persuaded to chip into something like this.

2 people like this
Posted by MV Resident and Worker
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 19, 2016 at 12:31 pm

Build track is damn expensive, and doesn't really solve the core problems.

A new transit system should focus on taking people from end-point to end-point, with minimal transfers. This system is not going to resolve those key problems we have with mass transit. Specifically, the system is only focused on MV, that means many people will have to transfer from one system to another. In the end, it has to clearly beat the time to drive for any individual person to consider it.

Look at similar systems around the world- They cost $1B+. Anywhere between $50M to $250M a mile.
Instead of $1B+, invest $100M into doing this:
1) $50M to run shuttles for 5 years - run them on the same route you would run the pods. Run them every 5 minutes out of the MV station.
2) In 2021, should the technology be ready (which it should) invest in driverless car fleets Invest the remaining $50M in the fleet and maintenance. You should be able to get 750 autonomous cars going, including maintenance costs (50K per car, with about $1M a year in maintenance over 10 years).

Also by the time 2021 rolls around we should have a much better picture of what's happening with High Speed Rail.

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Posted by James Anderson Merritt
a resident of another community
on Mar 6, 2016 at 7:56 pm

$50M/mile would seem a bit high for a modern AGT system. Judging from projects already completed and carrying satisfied passengers, $20M/mile would be a realistic general figure, though some approaches (such as Marshall Brain's EcoPRT out of North Carolina) promise much less expense. Since land is at a premium in Mountain View and Palo Alto, it makes sense to use elevated guideway wherever possible: it would be easier and less expensive to construct and maintain as a structure, while requiring much less ground-level right-of-way. There are four demonstration systems in the world that show the AGT ideas can be realized in real-world systems. Unfortunately, none of them yet have been ambitious enough to demonstrate how the AGT approach can cost-effectively address the needs of everyday passengers, not to mention environmental concerns. Mountain View could build the system that shows the full range of benefits that AGT can provide. I hope that the MV study proposes a realistic route and investigates the engineering and financial feasibility of implementing an AGT system along that route. We've already seen too many vague, speculative studies; it's time to get serious and specific.

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Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Mar 8, 2016 at 12:51 am

I don't understand the point of this. I thought Google's self driving pod cars were supposed to serve same the Low Speed, Low Capacity, Distributed Network transit niche as the Skytran system. The only advantage of the Skytran pods is that they travel above traffic but that also limits their flexibility and boarding locations.

The point of these systems Is to compensate for low capacity by providing a more distributed network than conventional transit. That also means a larger visual impact with all the aerial structures overhead. To be as convenient as a bus the stops would have to be spaced about the same distance apart but these cannot just stop at a simple bus stop.

This feels like it would have many of the disadvantages and few of the advantages of grade separated light rail or monorail systems which are much better equipped to handle high capacity passenger loads. Think of the length of lines at the pod stations. If Mountain View is ok with that fine but it still feels like a dated concept circa 1960's Disneyland. Maybe instead of fixed pods it should be like a chair lift for Google's pod cars and pick them up to carry over traffic and drop them off where they need to go.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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