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KU TRI Presentation Focuses on Unique Transit Options

Monday, October 27, 2008

Anyone who thinks walking up Daisy Hill is rough should visit West Virginia University. The Morgantown, W.Va., campus is split into three distinct areas that are spread 9 miles apart – and with more than 900 feet in elevation change from end to end.Hugh Kierig

This is the public transit challenge that Hugh Kierig, AICP, oversees with the country’s only working Personal Rapid Transit system. Kierig spoke Oct. 23 in front of a group of students and faculty members at the Spahr Engineering Classroom as part of the Emerging Challenges in Transportation lecture series at the University of Kansas.

“(PRT) might not be the answer for the most urban areas, but it’s an iconic part of WVU, and it works extremely well,” Kierig said.

The PRT was built in two phases in the 1970s at a cost of $125 million for the 9-mile system of guideways, electrical beams and unmanned vehicles. Imagine the “Autopia” ride at Disneyland without the 6-year-old kid at the wheel. 

Kierig points out that the system, which allows students to use a computer panel at each station to choose a destination, carries more than 25,000 passengers on a normal midweek day.

“And what we’re seeing is that it’s not just the students that ride it,” Kierig said. “We have incredible community ridership. And they pay 50 cents per ride.” 

The advantages of an automated PRT are pretty obvious, Kierig said. The system is efficient, quiet, easy-to-use and environmentally friendly. The disadvantages, though, are also mounting.

“We have 71 vehicles in our fleet that hold 20 people each,” Kierig said. “And every one of (the vehicles) is a converted 1969 Dodge truck.” 

With a fleet of aging vehicles and other technological issues, finding parts for this 30-year-old system is getting difficult and expensive. Most parts are specially made – or found through other outlets.

“Our people spend a lot of time on eBay, and their maintenance and ingenuity are what keeps this system running,” he said. 

Kierig’s talk, which was sponsored by KU’s Transportation Research Institute and the Mid-America Transportation Center, focused on how a system that was truly ahead of its time can help people tackle the challenges of today and the future. Similar systems are scheduled to open soon at Heathrow Airport in London and in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. However, like the system at WVU, these are small-scale systems, not the future of public transit.

“These are expensive systems,” Kierig said. “They have many advantages that should be utilized, but people must remember that they are just part of the answer for public transit, and no one answer is going to work for every situation.” 

But for Kierig, every day as he rides the PRT from the station near his house to the station near his office, he enjoys the ride quite a bit.

“And sometimes I smile and wave at people as they sit in their cars, stuck in downtown traffic.”

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