The city of Leeds is one of the biggest in the UK, with the city itself and surrounding metropolitan areas having a population surpassed only by London, Manchester and Birmingham. 750,000 people (in 2011) live in and around Leeds, and need to move around the city.
Unfortunately, public transport in Leeds at the moment is barely coping. The bus network is dramatically overused during peak times and has a curious route map and timetable which means whilst getting from the outskirts of the city in is relatively easy, going around the city or across the city itself almost invariably involves a change of route. The trains fare little better, with reliably late running on many routes and similar massive overcrowding during peak times.
I know, let’s update public transport!
What Leeds needs is a decent public transport system which is designed to move a lot of people to where they need to be very quickly. Fortunately, I’m not the only person to have thought this. There are a few proposals which have been floated around, summarised thusly:
Leeds used to have a tram network, which was around from 1891 until its closure in 1959. Once the last vestiges of this had been ripped up, rails removed and land used for terminuses sold for housing somebody decided that Leeds could really use a tram network. From the 1990s this idea was bounced around a fair bit, culminating in the Supertram.
The Supertram was going to run three lines to the north, east and south of the city, plus a city centre loop, and scope for expansion all the way to neighbouring Bradford. The problem with the Supertram was that it cost a lot of money. An original budget of £500 million spiralled to over £1 billion, despite the plan being scaled back dramatically (eventually back to a single line). The result was that the project was canned in 2005.
Another blast from the past comes in the form of trolleybusses. Leeds had a trolleybus network from 1911 to 1928, which was ditched for various reasons.
This one sort of makes sense. Technology has moved on dramatically since 1911, meaning that we can build high-capacity, energy efficient trolleybusses capable of moving lots of people. They look fairly good as well.
Unfortunately trolleybusses experience a similar problem to trams in that they have to run along designated routes. In the case of the proposed New Generation Transport for Leeds this is a single route running north-south via the city centre, which serves relatively few people.
New Bus for Leeds
If London can have it, Leeds can too. This is a plan put forwards by First — the largest bus operator in Leeds — and it makes some sense. New Bus for London has (after a few teething problems) shown to be a generally good idea, and would easily adapt to Leeds.
Yet again, however, the problem of routes arrives. Unless these busses are running every 5 minutes on major routes then you’re going to end up with a lot of waiting around, and they won’t necessarily help move people out of cars and onto public transport if they’re faced with a walk to a stop, a wait, a bus journey in bad traffic, and another walk at the end.
So how can we fix this?
It turns out there’s a solution. It’s high-tech, it’s environmentally friendly, it’s proven technology, it’s cheaper than a lot of new infrastructure. It’s called Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT. You probably won’t have heard about this unless you care about advanced public transit systems, so here’s a really quick overview.
A PRT system is based around small cars or ‘pods’, typically carrying 2-6 people each, which travel between predetermined stops. When a passenger arrives at a station they simply choose their destination stop, hop into the next available car (which is either waiting at the station or which is summoned on-demand and will arrive in a few seconds) and are driven without waiting to their requested destination. The entire system runs on dedicated guideways which are separate from existing roads, rails and pavements, and is computer controlled.
This all may sound like the stuff of dreams and the far future, but it’s a lot closer than you might think. At the moment there are two working PRT systems in use worldwide, with more on their way. One opened in 2010 in Masdar City, UAE, and the other at Heathrow Airport in 2011. Another is in the final stages of deployment in Suncheon, South Korea (running slightly behind schedule). Proposals are well underway for a large deployment in Amritsar, India, as well as an expansion of Heathrow system, and there are a whole bundle of case studies being done in other places.
I believe that Leeds would benefit from constructing a PRT system over further investment in technology which originated in the 19th century.
What are the benefits?
Here are a few reasons why PRT systems are awesome.
It’s really efficient
PRT fulfils the same basic function of existing public transit in that it moves people from A to B, but it has a few key differences which make it really efficient. It doesn’t run on a timetable, and passengers don’t wait for a passing vehicle. Instead vehicles are either waiting for passengers at the stations or are summoned by passengers and arrive within a few seconds. They can travel at full speed direct to their destination save for occasional slowing for corners, without stopping at intermediate points.
The vehicles do very little running around empty as well, only running when either they have passengers or they’re being redeployed by the system based on demand. When they’re not moving they can be parked up recharging their batteries, or take themselves out of service for maintenance.
Since the whole system is computer controlled and physically separate from existing roads and paths vehicles can be crammed onto pathways with only a few seconds gap between them. There are no traffic jams to worry about either, everything is kept moving quickly smoothly.
It can be really flexible
A PRT network doesn’t have to be restricted to moving small numbers of people, the same infrastructure can be used to move scheduled services as well (known as GRT, or Group Rapid Transport), or even move freight around. Since routing is all computerised, a vehicle will take the most appropriate route to its destination at all times, including routing around any problems such as objects on the guideway, disabled vehicle or areas of unusually high demand causing congestion.
The routing can also do things like take into account the time of day to make sure adequate vehicles are in the right place for rush hours, or be given advance warning of things such as stadium events to prioritise moving vehicles to the right stops or keeping a higher than usual number on standby nearby. This is all managed remotely from a control room with an overview of the whole system, orchestrating the otherwise automated movement of vehicles around the network.
It’s comfortable for passengers
Passengers aren’t crammed into vehicles with people they don’t know unless they opt to use a scheduled GRT service (if one is available). Instead they choose who to share a vehicle with, don’t stand around waiting at their departure point, don’t have to sit in traffic, don’t have to interchange (except to other transit modes) and can disembark at the station closest to their destination.
Passengers can also use the station and in-vehicle terminals to do things like report problems with a vehicle, meaning it can be quickly taken out of service, cleaned or repaired, and put back in. Since the vehicles are designed with an almost commodity mindset they are modular, and thus quick and cheap to repair or replace parts of.
The system is segregated from other traffic, meaning that vehicles are unlikely to hit or be hit by anything else. Even so, vehicles come equipped with a range of sensors to detect on-track obstacles and slow or stop accordingly. The computer control ensures things are kept moving smoothly, and things are monitored across the system to ensure problems are spotted and responded to as soon as possible.
If a vehicle experiences a problem then it can be ‘rescued’ using remote control, by dispatching an engineer to drive it manually, or by a tow vehicle. Vehicles themselves are monitored by CCTV and have buttons which provide a voice connection to the control centre in case of emergency.
The premise of the system also removes the potential (albeit fairly small in a city) risks of crime faced by people waiting alone at stops, since instead of potentially facing a long wait for transport a vehicle will be no more than a few seconds away at any time of the day or night.
It’s expansion and integration ready
A PRT is decentralised, meaning that individual extensions and stations can come online as soon as they’re ready. If you build two stops and a connection between them, you have a working system. Adding a third and fourth is easy. Build an extra spur on the network and it immediately has access to everything else. Add an extra bit to complete a loop, the network can be re-optimised to move people around in the faster direction. A Leeds system could start with a city centre loop before expanding out to key locations such as park and rides, hospitals, retail areas and trunk bus routes before eventually even becoming part of the default street furniture in new developments.
Systems which use rubber wheels on a track can even repurpose existing roadways and spaces through simple embedding of the location beacons in the ground, meaning that as long as you can connect the network it’s a relatively easy job to (for example) use a section of car parking as a station area. This dramatically lowers the amount of work necessary to integrate with the existing cityscape, as every multistorey car park or empty first-floor space in a shopping centre is an ideal candidate for becoming a station.
So why is this good for Leeds?
Leeds is an old English city, with many unusual street patterns which aren’t particularly well designed for getting around quickly. Similarly, it lacks the street capacity except on larger roads for running trams, and even if it did then the disruption during construction would be massive. Trolleybus wires would work with minimum chaos, but the trolleybusses are still restricted by road capacity. Building a proper light rail metro system would involve a massive amount of land purchase to try and fit it around existing bits and pieces. An underground would cost a simply enormous amount of money.
PRT infrastructure by contrast can run along existing rights of way, and it has a fairly minimal visual impact compared to other elevated rail systems. It can make tight turns around buildings which high-capacity busses, trams and trolleybusses can’t manage, and take advantage of routes which would simply be too narrow for traditional bus, tram or trolleybus systems. ULTra’s guideway is only 1.6m wide and 45cm high, and the Vectus guideway only 1.4m wide.
It’s also easy to build. In the case of ULTra the load-bearing requirements for the guideway are actually less than the UK standard for footpaths. The guideways for ULTra and 2getthere are entirely passive, and the guideways for Vectus have an option to be passive as well. In fact, the only part of construction which will cause disruption and require significant work is the station stops, and there are even systems in development such as Flyway which are capable of loading and unloading in an even smaller footprint.
It all looks good, but is it feasible?
Yes. There is nothing about PRT which is inherently infeasible for Leeds, save for somebody in authority actually deciding it’s a good idea and spending the necessary money.
Won’t this mess up existing mass transit?
No. In fact, all the surveys and estimations of PRT indicate that it actually increases usage of mass transit designed at moving people medium to long distances since they no longer find it more convenient or necessary to use their cars in order to reach trunk stations. Services like the Leeds CityBus would likely be replaced entirely, as would busses along lines now replaced by PRT, but intercity and long-distance bus services and likely most trains would probably see an increase in usage providing PRT stations are located at terminus locations such as the Train Station and Bus Station.
What does it cost?
The costs of a PRT system vary based on a number of factors, but range from around $7 million to $20 million per kilometer for the entire system including infrastructure, stations, planning, construction and vehicles. This is mostly because the system can be built above existing infrastructure and doesn’t require much in the way of land purchase except for station stops. Obviously adding elements such as tunneling or unusual elevation will increase the cost.
This may seem a big number, but by comparison a normal two-lane road costs around $8 million/km and a dual carriageway is closer to $13 million/km. The Supertram system in Sheffield when corrected for inflation clocks in at $22 million/km, and the proposed Leeds Supertram would have worked out at around $60 million\km. On the railway front HS2 is proposed to weigh in at around $150 million/km, and Crossrail is a whopping $212 million/km.
At the moment nobody with any kind of real clout in the world of public transport for Leeds is looking at PRT as a serious option, since it’s seen as far too futuristic and unproven. However, without people like me (and hopefully now you) suggesting it then we’ll never get anywhere close, and we can look forward to another 30 years of busses going to places we don’t want at times we don’t need with a group of people we don’t know.
Anyone else on board?