Future of Transit

Travel idea puts two peas in a pod

By: Mike Aldax
SF Examiner Staff Writer

The future of transit: Mountain View-based Unimodal hopes to have an working example of its SkyTran system set up at NASA Ames Research Center in about 18 months.

The future of transit: Mountain View-based Unimodal hopes to have an working example of its SkyTran system set up at NASA Ames Research Center in about 18 months.

SAN FRANCISCO — Imagine zipping along Geary Boulevard at 100 mph in a small, egg-shaped pod suspended on elevated cables instead of chugging along on the 38-Geary Muni bus.

Sounds like an episode of “The Jetsons,” but the idea to create an above-ground electric transit system in The City that, unlike Muni, wouldn’t have to compete with traffic has been pitched to the Municipal Transportation Agency.

The so-called SkyTran system, which uses magnetic fields to propel pods, would taxi commuters between portals, not stations, via cables elevated 8 to 15 feet above roadways, according to Unimodal, the Mountain View-based company that’s developing the project.

Only two people can fit in each pod, but the vehicles can run along the cables a half-second apart, potentially carrying the capacity of a three-lane highway, the company said.

SkyTran is billed as a “personal rapid transit” system, “a fast, hyper-efficient car you don’t need to drive or park,” according to Unimodal.

Like any type of public transit, you could walk to the nearest stop and hop in an available pod. You’d be able to enter a destination via voice or touchscreen, and would also be able to check e-mail on your laptop along the way, the company said.

Ideally, the cable guideway would be built like a highway, with long, speedy portions along major thoroughfares like Geary Boulevard or Van Ness Avenue and with turnoffs into neighborhoods or downtown side streets that act like off-ramps and command slower speeds.

There would be enough pods operating frequently that one would be available upon commuters arriving at pickup points 98.5 percent of the time, said John Cole, Unimodal’s chief operating officer.

Even faster connections closer to 200 mph could whiz passengers between The City and major airports, Cole said.

SkyTran has also been suggested to Caltrans officials as an alternative to highways and high-speed rail, he said.

The company is also hoping transit officials in Marin County, Los Angeles and New Orleans will consider the modern system.

The idea may seem far-fetched, but a short version of the transit system will likely be ready for viewing in about 18 months, Cole said. By then, the company hopes to show off the system on a 1,000-foot loop at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, he said.

“[The pods] are very small, very lightweight and cheap to build,” Cole said. A single pod might only weigh around 1,000 pounds, according to Unimodal.

The idea comes at a time when transit officials are willing to look at any mass transit idea beyond what’s currently available. Bay Area roadways are becoming increasingly congested as the region’s population grows. And while many drivers are switching to mass transit, most local transit agencies are operating on structural deficits, lacking adequate funds to run buses and trains, fix aging infrastructures and expand systems.

SkyTran would be an expensive initial investment, but would ultimately be cheaper than building upon current transit systems and roadways, Cole said.

A mile’s worth of cable guideway would cost between $7 million and $10 million, the company said. The bill for that same distance for freeways is anywhere between $35 million and $100 million, and for light-rail trackways the cost can be as much as $50 million per mile, according to a company report citing the National Transit Database.

Futuristic travel concept becoming reality

A South Bay company has met with Municipal Transportation Agency officials — and officials in other cities — to pitch an electric mass transit system suspended above traffic. Company officials claim the pods:

  • Can travel as fast as 100 mph in cities and 150 mph between cities, with no traffic jams or parking hassles
  • Can travel above roads and walkways
  • Are locked into the track and cannot derail
  • Hang from thin, elevated guideways, riding on magnets instead of tires
  • Use a tenth of the energy of a typical automobile
  • Run on guide-ways with the capacity of a three-lane freeway and can be built in weeks at a fifth of the cost of light rail or freeways
  • Have a cost of $10 million per mile for one-way track and $15 million per mile for two-way track
  • Automatically detect any obstacle in their path

Source: SkyTran.net

maldax@sfexaminer.com

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