Ithaca ponders the possibility of pod cars
When the Utne Reader, an alternative news digest, anointed Ithaca as America's Most Enlightened City in 1997, the town went viral in the media. Since then, Ithaca has been labeled one of the country's most progressive cities, the best place to be a mom or a lesbian (or both), a haven for nature lovers and retirees, and a splendid place to be a left-of-center NPR subscriber. Cornell, the town's major employer, is touted as a family-friendly institution intent on becoming a paragon of environmentalism with its new Center for a Sustainable Future and a commitment to downsizing its carbon footprint.
Now members of a citizen's group called Connect Ithaca are determined to add another jewel to Ithaca's emerald crown. They want to make the city formerly known for manufacturing the world's most celebrated shotgun into a global showpiece for Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). In short, they want Ithaca to be America's first pod car city. "I see this as a beautiful vision for the Ithaca area and downtown," says Frost Travis, MPS '00, co-owner of Travis and Travis Development and a founding member of Connect Ithaca. "It would significantly reduce traffic congestion and, by creating a walkable urban environment, intensify a sense of community."
So what are pod cars? They're small vehicles, usually seating four people (though larger versions can carry twenty), that travel on guideways twenty-five to thirty feet above the ground. One analogy for the system is a horizontal dumbwaiter that works like a monorail. There are main "nodes" and destinations; to summon a pod one simply pushes a button. Passengers hop in, swipe a card, and enter a destination, and the pods tool along at twenty to thirty miles per hour, propelled by renewable battery-powered energy. "The real genius behind PRT is the software that runs the system," says Robert Morache, an architect and spokesman for Connect Ithaca. "The rest is really old railroad technology." The concept has been compared, inaccurately, to the space car driven by George Jetson. The Sixties cartoon has come back to haunt the members of Connect Ithaca, who stress that pod cars are not personal flying saucers.
In September, Cornell hosted a three-day Pod Car City conference that drew about 200 people. An international posse of academics and engineers, as well as local and regional policymakers, gathered at the Johnson Museum to talk about pod cars and PRT. At least two PRT-oriented companies sent representatives: Vectus, of South Korea, and Ultra, of the U.K. Prototype PRT systems are under construction at London's Heathrow Airport and in Uppsala, Sweden. In fact, we have the Swedes to thank for the idea. The folks who brought us the Volvo, Lake Source Cooling technology, and wood stove pellets intend to wean themselves off fossil fuels by 2020, and PRT is key to their plans.
Sweden sponsored the first PRT conference in Uppsala in 2007, and Travis footed the bill for a Connect Ithaca rep to attend. It was there that Ithaca got the nod as the perfect place for a pilot project. Morache has created maps of proposed routes as well as visionary sketches of a State Street where pod cars whoosh over the heads of pedestrians and cyclists—images of a clean, peaceful city, with far fewer cars and trucks slicing through it and less sprawl along its outskirts. Still, the plan is not without its critics; there's plenty of skepticism that it could ever get off the ground, and the idea of elevated rails carrying pods past bedroom windows has unnerved some locals. Carlos Rymer '08, who studied sustainable development at Cornell and assisted with the conference, says many students initially expressed skepticism but eventually embraced the pod car idea. "This system has the potential to change transportation around the world," he said. "Ithaca could go into the history books as a major player in helping solve key urban challenges and stop global warming."
Like Cornell's Comprehensive Master Plan—which cites the need for improved campus transportation, possibly in the form of a rail-based system—Connect Ithaca is taking a long view in regard to transit and development. The group is currently awaiting word on a proposed feasibility study that would be financed with a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Interested parties, including the City of Ithaca, Cornell, and Ithaca College, are taking a wait-and-see approach. Could Ithaca really become America's first pod car city? "Everbody's lined up to be second," said Morache. "It takes real leadership to be the first."
— Franklin Crawford