What is the Future of Transportation? Look to the Sky

PLAY OF THE LAND

Sitting in hours of traffic—whether you’re stuck in a car, bus or metro—is a frustrating reality for city dwellers around the globe, and it’s only getting worse.  

What if you could bypass traffic on a crowded city street, and zip along in a magnetic pod that’s capable of moving at 150 miles per hour? It may sound like science fiction, but a pod system that moves on an aerial maglev track could soon be a reality in a number of cities, according to Jerry Sanders, chairman and CEO of SkyTran.

SkyTran, a company focused on the latest in personal rapid transit (PRT) systems, is working with Israel Aerospace Industries on a pilot program that brings these magnetic pods, or “little airplanes” as Sanders calls them, to IAI’s corporate campus in Tel Aviv. The program is set to complete its first phase of testing in January 2016. Once the test is completed—likely in late 2016—Sanders plans to expand the system to downtown Tel Aviv as well as other Israeli cities.

The privately owned system will be more expensive than a bus ride but cheaper than a taxi, Sanders says.

The rapid transit system works like this: Vehicles hang over a track, which moves them with a form of magnetic levitation. After an initial burst of electricity, there is no additional power required to keep the cars in motion. Think of an air hockey table: Once you hit the puck, it keeps going from the inertia because there is no friction.

“Once the cars get moving, they can fly on this magnetic wave forever and ever,” says Sanders. “It’s an extraordinary solution, and there’s really nothing comparable right now. In terms of efficiency, cost, speed, energy usage and the environment, this by far is the most compelling.”

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Jerry Sanders with a prototype of the SkyTran PRT system.

A Solution to Overcrowding?

Sanders, a former Israeli Navy SEAL and government advisor, says putting more money into failing infrastructure is only a temporary fix, and won’t be the answer to the sustainability challenges that come with overcrowding in cities.

Everyone’s talking about smart cities, but you can’t have a smart city with dumb transportation.

Urbanization is taking hold in every corner of the world and it’s moving at a remarkably fast pace. 

A little more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas today, versus 30 percent in 1950. By 2050, two-thirds of the population will live in cities, bringing with them more congestion, pollution and gridlock.

While transportation experts say transit-oriented development is a key to the sustainability of urban areas, is it the only solution?

“Everyone’s talking about smart cities, but you can’t have a smart city with dumb transportation,” Sanders says.

“Data is not going to get you from point A to point B. It might help you to lower the temperature in a building when it’s in use, but if you can’t get the workers to the building efficiently, what difference does it make?” 

The Smartphone of Transportation

But while Sanders says he envisions SkyTran and other PRTs will take hold in cities around the globe as soon as 10 years from now, other transportation experts aren’t so sure.

Steven Dale, president and founder of the consultancy Creative Urban Projects, says PRTs are not realistic transportation solutions.

“The PRT story is a fascinating one—the utopian ideal of a massive network of cars whipping around that can go anywhere. But show me an existing PRT system on the planet,” says Dale, who is more in favor of cable car systems. 

“The reality is that we don’t build transportation that way. We don’t build one enormous network all at one time. We build transportation very slowly and methodicallyone component and then another and then another. Rome wasn’t built in a day; it was built piece by piece, incrementally.”

But Sanders says the cost to install SkyTran is one-tenth that of a light rail (an estimated $6 million per kilometer versus $70 to $100 million a kilometer, respectively) and is much faster to build.

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The company is proceeding with a number of parallel projects, including designing a proposed system for Charles de Gaulle Airport.

“The world is thirsty for a transportation solution, and it’s going to happen fast,” Sanders says.

“Ten years ago, no one had a smartphone and now we can’t live without it.” 

 

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