Here at Moving Like Water, we’re always hot to jump on something that’s new and different. Which is why I’ve been sitting on this from ecogeek for a few weeks now.
The company, Unimodal, is claiming to be developing a new transportation system that is very low cost, better for the environment (runs on electricity, obviously) and maintains the freedom of the car by eliminating fixed routes.
Now I don’t know how realistic their vision is or how advanced the development is, but I know if I was a shark on Shark Tank, I’d be asking “Do you have any sales??”. Because it’s an interesting idea, but it’s hard to imaging a municipality springing for such an untested concept. And while it may be admittedly cheaper per mile than, say, light rail, it would also demand a much larger footprint to fulfill their key benefit: not being tied to a specific route. In order to get where you need to go, SkyTran would need to have a full city map of possible destinations pretty much at the outset. Otherwise, you have an expensive amusement park ride. Which means, I think, that you could have higher start-up costs than traditional rail by needing more miles for a first phase. But I suppose the counter argument to that is that with the same money, you’d serve more area so it may be worth discussing. (Or maybe I’m just cynical due to Seattle’s history of being suckered by monorail system proposals in the past.)
Now one of the reasons I love trains is the same reason my Republican friends hate them: they work as equalizers in society. In countries that rely on transit, you’ll see wealthy businessmen in suits sitting next to boot-wearing laborers, teenagers with headphones and everyone in between. It becomes impossible to pretend that people who aren’t like you don’t exist and it becomes crucial to think in terms of our common interests instead of your personal self-interest. For example, the fantasy that you’re not affected by your neighbors without health insurance becomes impossible when someone coughs next to you on a train. A healthier society is much more immediately tied to a healthier you. It’s easier to pretend to be unaffected by others when you’re sitting high in your SUV above a homeless person at an offramp.
Unfortunately the SkyTran concept retains the separate pod concept of today’s cars, where we don’t need to interact with others and we can speed along ignoring those around us.
Additionally I’m not totally sold on the argument that systems such as this are cheaper. I once had an argument with someone who claimed you could simply run electric trolley buses on a separated (paved) track and not bother with building the full systems required by rail. And it’s not a completely dumb idea. In a way, it’s taking the best part of trains (largely separating them from traffic) and the best part of buses (supposedly cheap) and rolling it out across the system. But personally I think it depends what time horizon you’re looking at. Buses would be cheaper if you talked about a one-year horizon, but would be vastly more expensive if you talked about 100 years. But maybe SkyTran has a chance of making their affordability argument. When even proponents are stuck in the mindset that buses are cheaper, they might be able to convince some leaders this is the way to go.
That’s why I’m sticking with the tried and true concept of integrated train systems. Seattle, where I live, is finally getting its act together on effective transit systems. It’s not the heavy rail system I’d like to see, such as San Francisco’s BART system, but it’ll do. Experienced transit users know changing trains is not that difficult and can be a very efficient method of getting across a city. The trick is having the political will to build the transit systems we’ll need for the future. And if there were a system like SkyTran here, I’d love riding it, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for it to be built. I’ll be watching it closely, but I don’t think I’ll be investing my money just yet.