Miami’s Metromover.

Last week, Steve Offutt introduced the last mile problem in Tysons Corner. With the Metro on the way, a solution is clearly needed to get transit riders to their apartments and offices.

I suggested that a system of busways could easily speed circulators around the neighborhood. Steve countered with a proposal for a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system spanning the area.

The series has generated a lively discussion, and that’s important. I’m skeptical of the ability of PRT to succeed or gain acceptance because of PRT’s capacity problems, its removing pedestrians from the streets, and the visual impact.

To compare Tysons with PRT and other transit systems, I’ve overlaid Tysons with to-scale representations of PRT and heavy rail transit in other cities.

Click on the radio buttons to toggle: Morgantown PRT Detroit People Mover

Miami Metromover DC Metro downtown

Morgantown, West Virginia’s Personal Rapid Transit System is one of the earliest examples of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) in the world. It opened in 1975, and has 5 stations in a linear formation. During some times, vehicles bypass intermediate stations, but other times they make all stops just like a regular metro-type system.

Detroit and Miami both have circular people movers designed to transport people around their central business districts. Detroit’s is mono-directional; Miami’s is made up of three “loops”. Also included is an overlay showing the downtown Washington Metro stops to-scale over Tysons.

The experience of this region over the last thirty years shows that transit can reshape our urban areas. But more important than the form of the transit are the policies shaping land use. The District, Arlington, and Montgomery County enacted policies to encourage transit-supportive densities and uses. As a result, urban villages dot many of their station areas. On the other hand, all the transit in the world wouldn’t help a jurisdiction with no desire to rethink the areas around Metro stops.

Personal Rapid Transit is as yet an unproven technology. I have concerns about the ability for a system like the one proposed by ULTra to adequately and cheaply serve the people of Tysons.

PRT in Tysons is not the right fit because it will not be the right kind of transformative catalyst. It will not create the pedestrian density that is a vital part of a vibrant urban area. The sidewalks around Rosslyn, Ballston, Bethesda, and Farragut Square are all crowded, especially with commuters during rush hours. The ULTra PRT system called for by Steve would rob the areas around the Tysons stations of that vibrancy.

Workers would not need to walk to the office. Instead, a futuristic pod would drop them off right in their building’s lobby. While this might be convenient, it would seem to obviate the need to change Tysons. Sidewalks and shops would be robbed of their users, and the area would remain disjointed, even though it would be connected by a transit system fit for La Ville Radieuse. My concerns also extend to the viability of the mode. After all, if one extends PRT to its logical conclusion, one approaches the medium known as the “car”. The PRT concept basically entails a guideway running along every street, no waiting, no unwanted intermediate stops, no unwanted travel companions, and door-to-door service.

That formula hasn’t created the livable spaces we are seeking today. And it also presents the question of congestion. If Tysons’ road network is already overwhelmed with personal vehicles, how would a system of individual personal pod-vehicles making the same trips be immune?

Besides, Tysonians would never stand for the miles of elevated guideways. The fight to bury the Silver Line is an excellent example of how Tysons’ civic leaders would react to this PRT proposal. Instead of a linear line or perhaps a circular loop, the ULTra concept would weave a web of elevated tracks with stations on almost every block. I doubt the system could be built without serious objections about aesthetics.

Another logistical hurdle seems to exist for a Tysons PRT. While PRT might be a great concept for a place with many diffuse origins and destinations, the reality is that Tysons won’t work that way. Instead, there will be four main origins located at the Metro stations and diffuse destinations. Passengers will arrive in waves every 3 to 6 minutes as each Metro train stops.

ULTra’s design does not seem to be prepared for waves of passengers arriving all at once. Cars can only carry up to 4 people each and have only one door per side. The makers claim each berth in a station can handle 400 departing persons in an hour, or about 6.5 per minute. That means it would take 14 berths just to handle the capacity of a Metro escalator, which can discharge 90 people per minute.

If we’re going to clutter the Tysons landscape with elevated guideways, we could get a bigger bang for our buck with an automated circulator like Miami’s or Detroit’s. These systems use larger vehicles and stations, but they have a higher capacity. Like heavy and light rail, they can be coupled into trains. They have multiple doors and plenty of seats and standing room. Vancouver’s completely automated subway system, SkyTrain, just transported 577,000 passengers per day on average during the Olympics, well over its usual average of 334,000. And like PRT, automated guideway trains can run at high frequencies with low labor costs.

Unlike PRT, automated guideway systems have shown they work with high volumes. The world’s busiest automated line carries 175,000 a day on a 1.1 mile route with 6 stations in the Atlanta Airport. Even if guideways for a heavier duty automated circulator cost more, building less of them (compared to PRT) could present a cost savings.

I still think that a cheaper, at-grade system of dedicated busways or streetcar lines could serve the area just as well with a much cheaper pricetag.

The reality of the situation is that Fairfax County has little money to spend on any secondary transit system in Tysons, and even if a last mile system was ready to open when the Silver Line opens, there would still be a long way to go. And Tysons will be a challenge to serve regardless of which mode is used for its last mile system.

Regardless of our method, all our transit investment will be in vain if Fairfax leaders don’t stay committed to transforming Tysons. But that doesn’t mean Tysons can skip the last mile system. Indeed, with the vast distances separating Tysons’ spaces, a supplemental “last mile” system is absolutely essential. And it is also essential that we get it right, otherwise a revitalized, transformed Tysons will still find mobility obstacles hampering its growth for many years.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.