The age of the Jetsons is finally upon on us.
Yesterday evening, an international delegation of academics, engineers and policy makers gathered in the Johnson Museum to mark the commencement of the three-day Podcar City Conference — one devoted to further developing the use of Personal Rapid Transit. Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) expressed his excitement concerning the convention by addressing the positive implications of the proposed alternative mode of transportation, which involved computer-programmed cars run on elevated guide-ways.
“I want to seriously congratulate you on what you’re doing,” Hinchey said to the group. “We live in a time when dependence upon fossil fuels is really, in a sense, passé.”
As a means of reconciling the issue, Hinchey asserted that government focus should be reallocated to “personal rapid transit automobiles,” and subsequently to allowance for “substantial amounts of funding” to achieve such a transition.
Hinchey explained that a transportation bill is long overdue.
“It’s overdue because this administration is not willing to deal with the economy, [and] because they’re not interested in reducing our dependence on oil,” he said.
According to the Institute for Sustainable Transportation, which worked with Connect Ithaca to bring the Podcar City Conference to Ithaca, this is the second international conference — the first occurred last year in Sweden.
“I think you chose the right place in the United States to hold this [second conference],” Hinchey said.
When probed further as to why he thought Cornell could successfully house the conference, Hinchey spoke highly of Ithaca.
“I think that Cornell has the ability and the likelihood of demonstrating the appropriate leadership on the issue. [In Ithaca], there are very progressive and understanding locals — people very much know what’s going on and how to deal with it,” he said.
Mayor Carolyn Peterson agreed.
“Ithaca as a city has been trying to make itself a leader of sustainability in transportation,” she said.
And there were ample attendees last night who demonstrated their environmental awareness and proactive stance.
“I think that the current transportation infrastructure isn’t sustainable. It’s profoundly irrational and expensive,” said Joan Bokare of Connect Ithaca.
According to Fernando de Aragon, director of Ithaca and Tompkins County Transportation Council, Connect Ithaca has designated a group of people who are currently applying for a feasibility study to investigate whether or not Podcars could function in a city that they say is ready for it. For this reason, a time frame could not be attached to the project in Ithaca.
So what exactly is a Podcar?
“It’s a little car that can sit four people … that runs on elevated guide-ways,” de Aragon explained. “By elevating it, it gets above congestion and can run without interruption,” he said.
According to Ed Porter, councilmember of the City of Santa Cruz, California, “car stops,” essentially like bus stops, would be stationed within a quarter mile of one’s location.
“You program a little box to tell it where you want to go, using a card like an ATM card. [Then it runs] non-stop to where you want to go,” he continued.
Porter also explained that the Podcars would function in a series of loops, sitting on fixed guide-ways that run in only one direction.
Manager of the conference Christer Lindstrom of Sweden likened the service to a taxi. “You [could] share the taxi with others, or you [could] rent the entire taxi.”
Lindstrom further explained that the computer system operating the cars calculates the demand for the vehicles at particular times during the day.
“The first day, it’s going to adjust itself,” he explained, so that on a given Saturday evening, the system would learn that it needs to send more cars than it would on a Tuesday afternoon.
While implementation of the technology in Ithaca would be groundbreaking locally, there currently are forms of Podcars in the U.S. and other countries.
According to Lindstrom, people will be using a Podcar system in the Heathrow Airport in London next year, while a similar system currently runs at West Virginia University.
“There has also been a German experiment and a couple American experiments in the last 30 to 40 years, but most of them fade for various reasons,” he said. “That’s why we’re not so self-assured … but we don’t give up so easily.”
According to Porter, potential setbacks arise inherently in the technology.
“People are afraid of it — afraid of technology and infrastructure that’s elevated,” said Porter. “For that reason, it takes a slow and careful process to consider it as a city.”
The conference thus serves as a means of fostering the debate necessary to understand the feasibility of the technology.
“What happens in a crisis is a period of innovation,” de Aragon said, referring to the state of the economy. “This is that: a collection of people with a good idea, trying to bring it to bear fruit.”