Elevating our transportation options: the Personal Rapid Transit of Morgantown.

In the affable college town of Morgantown, West Virginia—home of the WVU Mountaineers—the unsuspecting visitor encounters a very strange viaduct-like structure presiding over some of the most prominent downtown streets.

IMG_2181

What is it?  It’s certainly not on the same scale as the Chicago Transit Authority’s rail system—the “el” (short for “elevated rail), but then, does anyone expect Morgantown, with just 30,000 people, to warrant a network of that size?  It looks a bit more like the more obscure but hardly unknown, and largely infamous, People Mover in Detroit, which forms a three-mile ring around the Motor City’s downtown area, though it’s not as wide as this Morgantown incarnation, since it only offers service in a single direction (one of the People Mover’s most fatal of flaws).  One could also compare its appearance to the point-to-point service of the privately funded, now-defunct Clarion People Mover, a dual-track operation in Indianapolis that navigated hospital employees, students, and patients across the medical campus throughout its 15-year life cycle.  The Indianapolis example closed at the end of 2018 when the hospitals determined the maintenance costs exceeded the benefit; they resumed shuttle service in 2019.

But this Morgantown variant is not a People Mover.  It’s essentially the world’s only surviving example of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), operating since 1975 as a mostly grade-separated means of reaching various destinations, based on individual preference—a system that the federal government partnered with the State and City to pilot, capitalizing on Morgantown’s rugged topography, its sprawling West Virginia University Campus, and the high proportion of non-vehicle-owning students.  With five stations and a 3.5-mile route that is mostly overhead (about one-third is underground or at surface level), the Personal Rapid Transit uniquely allows the user to specify the destination, and the vehicles will bypass stations to get there.  There’s the distinction between it and most other forms of mass transit: in some regards it operates more like a taxi service on a concrete, magnetically induced track/guideway.

I don’t think it’s fair for me to write much more extensively about Personal Rapid Transit, since I have yet to try the Morgantown example.  (One of these days.)  But it’s remarkable because it’s the only example in the United States, it has survived with reasonably good use for over forty years, even amidst some upgrades in the early 2010 to improve reliability, which has always remained above 90% and usually above 95%.  In the last decade, other replications of PRT have appeared, mostly in Asia, but it remains a novelty.

Overhead line for Personal Rapid Transit in Morgantown

And I suspect that, at least in my lifetime, it will never expand beyond the novelty status.  Color me cynical, but the very presence of this infrastructure in Morgantown underlies the paradoxical nature of Personal Rapid Transit’s intent: it aims to move large numbers of people collectively, but the notion that one can specify where one would like to go erodes the possibility of collective success.  Supposedly the PRT cars in Morgantown can hold up to 20 people comfortably.  How do the 20 individuals decide who gets preference, if they all don’t seek to end up at the same station?  Wouldn’t there have to be some level of bargaining, and the optimal solution would result so that the outvoted sheep simply leave the car and choose to embark on the next one that arrives?  Since I’m speaking out of ignorance, I’m certainly open the discussion to those who understand better or have used it regularly.  Perhaps more importantly, as long as trains require some sort of track (which, one presumes, underlies the very definition of a train), the idea of personalization on par with a taxi or ride-sharing app isn’t feasible unless overhead concrete were to become as prevalent in a city landscape as streets and sidewalks.  Such an approach is probably politically unacceptable from both a budgetary and aesthetic standpoint.

From what I can tell, however, Personal Rapid Transit works in environments where there’s a homogenized need spread over a reasonably large but contained distance.  Morgantown has a somewhat fragmented college campus that dominates the local economy.  Students and faculty use it all the time.  Airports also seem like a good option; London Heathrow features a variant that has run for about a decade.  Beyond that, until we achieve some mode of transit akin to Back to the Future Part II (the old flying cars analogy), I’m not sure I see a scenario where PRT will elevate beyond novelty status.  And if we ever do get flying cars, unencumbered by any track or infrastructure, what’s to keep it as a mass transit operation, when, if it works well, eventually people will dig deep into their pockets to buy their own vehicles, as they did in the movie?  Let’s hope, at the very least, the Morgantown PRT continues to whet people’s appetite for what we could achieve, for many years to come.

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11 thoughts on “Elevating our transportation options: the Personal Rapid Transit of Morgantown.

    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Even more amazing is that the public sector hasn’t given up on it, it’s been going strong for nearly 50 years, and the powers that be just reaffirmed their faith in it a couple years ago with a massive renovation to improve reliability…

      Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          I hope they…or the City…work to devise an interesting repurposing of the infrastructure (perhaps an Indianapolis equivalent to the New York High Line?), but I have a sneaking suspicion they’ll let it decay, then demolish it.

          Remember that Bloch Cancer Survivor Plaza nearby (at 10th and Indiana)? It deteriorated badly (the materials were more suited to a warmer drier climate), to the point the Indy Parks dismantled it, but it was supposed to get re-installed with Midwest-friendly material over along the Fall Creek Trail, with the partnership of Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood association, over by the Julia Carson Center, along with a playground. A master plan and design were developed; don’t think that ever happened. At least not yet. I wrote about it at Urban Indy: http://www.urbanindy.com/2012/08/06/an-overlooked-park-finds-a-new-home/

          Reply
  1. AvatarChris B

    LOL. Eric, you’ve hit my family’s experience yet again. Mrs. Chris is a graduate of WVU and used the PRT while a nursing student there.

    I’ll have to check, but I think the system might act as a horizontal elevator, as it were, bypassing some stops if no one requests them (and no one has called for a vehicle going that direction).

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Thanks for the response, and I like the horizontal elevator analogy. Since I’ve never seen the PRT in operation, your analogy begs the question: what are the average speeds of the vehicles and what are the distances they must travel? If the former is too low and the latter is too great, the wait for a car is likely to be far more of an irritation than the typical wait for an elevator on a supertall–made all the worst since the average supertall, depending on the floor plate, is likely to have at least 4 simultaneously operative elevator shafts, and possibly more. Furthermore, most elevators start at a single unifying floor that 98% of users will access at some point in time, and unless there’s a similar core to the PRT, there isn’t the same baseline by which some of the shafts will bypass the lower floors (or the closer stations) while others will only serve those lower floors (closer stations).

      Sorry, I know I’m restating the obvious, but these would all have be critical considerations for the PRT to compete with walking or riding a bike. And if Morgantown ever gets motorized scooters (if they don’t get litigated out of business), that could be the kiss of death for PRT. Meanwhile, the proliferation of app-initiated options like Lime and Bird may have permanently stymied any credible efforts to pilot PRT in other cities…though if it does happen, another college town is likely to prove the best setting.

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      1. AvatarChris B

        The terrain covered by the PRT is not very bike-friendly. At least not fixie-friendly. And I don’t know how well electric scooters do on fairly steep hills (higher energy demand would discharge a battery faster?).

        PRT is probably a “local optimum” based on an unusual pair of circumstances (low density campus and hilly/mountainous terrain).

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          Good to know. I’ve been through Morgantown twice–first time just passing through, and the more recent time I spent most of it at a coffee shop. I didn’t really get to see the downtown much beyond the car window. My impression is, from a spatial layout standpoint, that Morgantown looks much bigger than it is, perhaps because the incorporated boundaries are comparatively small, but I was surprised to learn it only had 30K people (universities and hills tend to amplify a urbanized area’s depth and texture). It has much more new construction than the average West Virginia city, no doubt due to its comparatively robust economy. And, since it hasn’t suffered prolonged periods of population loss (atypical for WV), it has faced fewer challenges with management of municipal services, despite the fact that its biggest employer is a state entity. Bearing this in mind, as long as the speeds are reasonably good for the vehicles, I can see PRT continuing to succeed as long as the reliability remains high–and apparently, facing service deterioration in the last 10-15 years, considerable capital investments have brought it back to good shape.

          Reply
          1. AvatarChris B

            Morgantown has always struck me as a sprawly small city. Owing to the Interstate junction of 79 and 68 there, it has 2/3 of an outer belt, which no doubt encompasses far more than the municipal boundaries. (While the city has 30,000, the 2-county MSA has 130,000, so there are a lot of suburban Morgantown residents.)

            FYI there’s more on the PRT here: https://transit.land/news/2016/08/16/morgantown-prt.html

            Reply
        2. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          Replying to your “Morgantown sprawly city” observation, I’d agree–and even assert that West Virginia cities tended to sprawl before “sprawl” was a word (at least within the urbanist lexicon). I’ve noted in the past that even small towns of 2,000 or less, which in much of the country would show a clear core as a regular grid of square/rectangles, look more like daddy long legs in the lumpiest state east of the Mississippi. So many West Virginia towns formed at the juncture of two rivers–those small patches of land flat enough for a settlement–and as they fanned outward, they grew as spindles with usually a block or two radiating away from the riparian corridor, up the side of the river valley. Probably it was the most practical way to build, but it also meant that the core of many WV towns sits squarely in a floodplain…one of the many conditions that has inhibited this beautiful state from easily supporting any particularly large, compact urban settlements. Even Pittsburgh is flat by comparison.

          Reply

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