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June 25, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, June 25, 2004

Silver bullet, or pie in the sky? Silver bullet, or pie in the sky? (June 25, 2004)

Inventor suggests futuristic monorail to cut down commutes at Stanford Research Park

by Bill D'Agostino

It sounds like something out of an Isaac Asimov novel.

You step off a train and into a small pod, which whisks you -- or a person or two of your choosing -- to the front door of your office, traveling at speeds of 30 miles per hour. The pod, riding on a track 16 feet above the ground, would automatically know your destination through a chip inside your cell phone and bypass other stops.

As you step off, the pod -- one of 300 on the 6.2-mile loop -- goes on to pick up the next commuter.

It may sound like science fiction, but Palo Alto native Steve Raney, the founder of transit advocacy group Cities21, believes it can be done at Stanford Research Park for $50 million by the year 2008. He sees the research park's post-World War II design -- a relatively dense office park far from mass transit -- as a perfect locale for the monorail-type system, which would connect the California Avenue Caltrain station to the park's major employers, like Hewlett Packard and SAP.

The 20,000 workers who currently work in the park primarily rely on automobiles for their daily travel.

Local naysayers of the plan are numerous, but Raney is undeterred. He is planning to give a presentation on Wednesday night to the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, hoping to stir interest in the project and find early, private investors. (Little money would come from government sources; Raney believes the system would be profitable.)

Raney is a dreamer who believes he has found the "silver bullet" for reducing solo car trips. The project is spun from his thesis at the University of Berkeley, where he got his master's degree in transportation planning.

First made public in 2001, the "silver bullet" project has now undergone three studies. Armed with those results, Raney is even more enthusiastic about his project

Based on interviews with park employees, Raney's research argues the technology can reduce 6,600 car trips annually, saving 1.65 million gallons of gas and 33 million pounds of carbon dioxide a year. By giving people an extremely convenient and pleasant way to travel the "last mile" to work, Raney said, the number of people riding alone would drop from 89 percent to 45 percent.

But others -- including major players who would need to eventually back the project -- are so far unconvinced.

"I don't see how you could make it happen," said Bill Phillips, the managing director of real estate for the Stanford Management Company, which operates the research park. "I think it would be far too costly."

Phillips also challenges most of the major assumptions and conclusions from Raney's study. For instance, he said, the actual number of employees driving alone is estimated to be only 83 percent, not 89 percent. An estimated 12.5 percent of employees already carpool, Phillips said, citing the research park's analysis.

Still, getting the number of solo drivers down to 45 percent would be miraculous.

The conclusions in Raney's 190-page report were primary extrapolated from 62 interviews with EPRI employees. But people are more likely to portray themselves as environmentally aware in an interview, Phillips argued.

Plus EPRI has one of the highest number of employees driving alone in the research park, since it's located past Foothill Expressway, far from any mass transit options, according to Phillips. (By contrast, only about 77 percent of employees of Genencor and Wilson Sonsini, located much closer to El Camino Real, drive alone.)

There are numerous other hindrances to the project. All of the major employers would need to sign off, to allow major construction and to encourage their employees to use it. Neighbors of the park would have to deal with cars flying 16 feet overhead 24 hours a day. The technology might not be ready for numerous years, and the structure might not be able to withstand an earthquake.

But the biggest hindrance is almost certainly Raney's ability to raise the $50 million needed to build the 6.2 miles of track, 20 stations and 300 cars, and the $3 million a year needed to operate it.

Raney has developed a complex, and some say extremely unviable, plan for returning the investor's money: $4.9 million a year would come from a 75-cent fare per rider, with 26,000 trips per day. Caltrain would pay $2.7 million a year because it would watch its riders increase exponentially. About $3.5 million would be made annually from advertisements, while $1.25 million would come from office park employees paying 50 cents a day for parking.

And $4 million would come from a complex real estate scheme, whereby 6,600 parking spaces would be reduced in the office park, freeing 50 acres of new housing to be built and sold. That's perhaps the most infeasible part of an already far-fetched plan, for numerous reasons. First, the City of Palo Alto would likely not allow more development in the research park (it goes against current planning goals, although Raney believes that could be lifted since the Silver Bullet would be fewer car trips). Also, being near sites contaminated by industrial pollutants hinders much of the potential development.

Somewhere, someday the technology to make such a system available to commuters will come to fruition, both Phillips and Raney agree.

"Unfortunately, we've developed this county in a way that doesn't match up with the type of technology that's envisioned here in a way that's cost-productive," Phillips argued.

Raney is more optimistic. It's going to happen somewhere; it should be here, he said. "It's prone to really take off."

Staff writer Bill D'Agostino at

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