No, mass transit is not just for cities like Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. CyberTran[1] is a form of mass transit suitable for most parts of the nation, from suburbs to the densest parts of Manhattan. It is not so much a new system as an overlooked one. The advantages:

  • It offers 24-hour availability.
  • Your journey time is about the same as in a car.
  • Your rail-car is ready when you are.
  • You never need to stand.
  • Stops are near your home and your final destination.
  • You can read the paper during your trip.

No magic is involved.

CyberTran ultralight rail uses small cars carrying 20 passengers. (The same-sized cars could be configured to hold anywhere from six to 30 riders.) Small, light cars run on cheaper tracks. The total capital cost of a CyberTran urban system (including rail and guideways) is about a tenth or less the cost per passenger mile of conventional light rail[2]. That is important — capital costs dominate rail expenses.

CyberTran is an automated, driverless system. (With so many tiny cars, it has to be.) Outside of rush hour, it would be an on-demand system, calculating routes on the fly. During rush hour in dense urban areas, a series of CT cars following one another closely would mimic a conventional multi-car train with fixed schedules. Regardless, you would never have to wait more than five minutes or so for a car — usually less.

In-system transfers should take even less time, because when you bought a ticket, the system would know you needed to transfer and when. And because of the high degree of computerization (each car would have an on-board computer, plus the system would have a bank of central computers), routing would be optimized. Transfers would be avoided when possible; when transfers were needed, the routes would still be direct enough. You would never go around Robin Hood’s barn to get to your destination.

Given the small numbers of passengers per car (and the fact that stops would be made at offline sidings, without blocking the main track), travel would also be optimized to minimize the number of stops. That is, passengers would be sorted onto cars by destination. Sometimes this would result in virtual expresses with few or no stops between a passenger and her destination. Rush hour might not always allow this, but at minimum the number of stops made would be reduced. You would never have to stop at every, or almost every, station.

There will be a lot of stations available. Stops are offline from main guideways — one CT car stopping does not delay others. CT stations can be as frequent as bus stops.

Because of automation, you can afford more surplus cars, since unused capacity is parked, not rolling, not consuming labor or energy. You can also afford not to fill the cars.

In most cases you will have a stop within easy walking distance of both ends of your journey. In addition, even major stops don’t have to be major multi-acre lots like the BART Park ‘n’ Rides in San Francisco. Park ‘n’ Rides can consist of many small parking lots, not giant branches of the night auto supply. If you live in a nightmarish suburban development, with acre after acre of housing and no shops or suitable areas for a transit stop within walking distance, you will still find a (comparatively) small, pleasant CT stop with parking a short drive from your home.

CyberTran is not designed for people to stand in the aisles. As mentioned, the cost is about 10% that of conventional rail, and most of that is in guideways, not the cars. Cars won’t need to be overloaded during peak hours to pay for off-peak travel. You are guaranteed a seat. You only stand if you want to stretch your legs — an option you don’t have driving.

You have the comfort of a car, probably more, and unlike buses, every car is fully wheelchair and disabled accessible. There is plenty of room for luggage — more carry-on baggage space than pre-deregulation planes. (Depending on local policy, they may easily be designed to accommodate baby carriages and bicycles as well.)

It is safer than auto travel, with a lower probability of accidents, better crash resistance, and built-in airbags.

CT is better than normal transit in terms of protection from both crime and harassment. Unlike normal transit, it provides a low penalty in convenience for following human instinct in choosing transit companion. A CyberTran car is divided into compartments of between two and five seats each. So upon entering, you can avoid compartments with anyone you feel uncomfortable with, or wait a few minutes and order a new train if the whole car feels wrong.

There are special security features; every seat has a phone that connects directly to security. There are pull cords like those in old trolleys that automatically override all programming and pull to nearest secure destination, notifying security. Since you can tell which cord was pulled and there are not many passengers to a compartment, identifying anyone responsible for “prank” stops or false alarms should be possible in almost all cases.

U.S. city and commuter buses get fewer passenger miles per gallon than cars or even light trucks/SUVs[3]. Vehicles burn a lot more fuel stopping and starting than traveling. Buses have to deal with normal stop-and-go traffic and all the stops to pick up and drop off passengers. If they were fully loaded all the time, that might make up for it. But according to DOT, even with standing-room-only during peak periods, city and commuter buses on average carry only nine passengers. Buses do reduce congestion, but not by much. One bus replaces many cars that would otherwise be on the road, but buses turning and changing lanes in city traffic and especially buses at stops cause congestion as well.

Most city and commuter buses are miserable to ride. Bus trips take longer than car trips to the same destination; further, trip time can be unpredictable. Passengers breathe fumes, often have to stand, and depending on the route, may suffer harassment while traveling. Buses also perform an essential function. In the U.S., city and commuter buses are the only means by which poor people or people who can’t drive can get around inexpensively. (Very few U.S. cities are exceptions.)

To replace buses with a form of transit that is less expensive, more convenient, and more comfortable would be a kindness to city and commuter bus riders, and to the cars that currently share the streets with them. Replace the busiest, most crowded bus routes with CyberTran first, then the next, and so on until you replace all routes with three or more runs daily. Put a transit stop at every former bus stop on these routes. Bus riders will be much better off, and the streets will be less crowded and congested.

Ridership won’t be limited to former bus riders. A lot of people will decide it is better to read a paper or nap on new generation transit than to spend the same or more time stuck in traffic in a commute. Many will decide it is better not to fight traffic and parking when visiting friends and relations, or eating (and especially drinking) out. Given accommodations for luggage and packages, some may even use it for shopping.

And that will lead to demand for transit on other routes. Transit routes will become selling points in real estate. Developers will build along them, and demand them near existing tracts. In short, you will get the same kind of feedback cycle that currently leads to more auto use. CyberTran runs about 30 cents per passenger mile (cheaper than auto transportation) in a system with 10,000 users or over — something achievable in fairly low-density areas. (In other words, if 25,000 people live within 10 miles of you, your area could support a CT system. In short, it is practical wherever population density, living and working combined, exceeds 81 people per square mile — something true for most people in the U.S.)

While super-light rail is not quite door to door, there is no reason everyone can’t have it near their home — anywhere a bus stop could go. Unlike conventional light rail, super-light rail does not require high-density development. Although it will fit quite nicely into new urbanism, or even old urbanism, it also will work well in suburbs.

So how ecologically beneficent is CyberTran? Energy savings are substantial; depending on electricity source (and thus thermal conversion and transmission losses) it would get between 119 and 264 passenger MPG[4]. Because CyberTran consumes less land per passenger mile, disturbs the land less than highways or even conventional light rail, and gets much higher utilization out of its vehicles, we can also expect infrastructure savings of close to 90% compared to an automobile-based system[5]. There is even a high-speed version that can reach speeds of 150 mph and replace airplanes for trips under 400 miles (I’d say more).

CyberTran is just one of a whole class of trains known as ultralight rail. Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems offer the same benefits, but trade higher costs for greater convenience. Basically they use smaller cars, and thus operate more like automated taxis than trains. Their advantages are, you never have to share a ride with anyone but your traveling companions, and you always go direct to destination with no (instead of few) stops. The disadvantage is that smaller cars mean more motors and generally higher costs per seat. In addition, CyberTran makes more use of standard rail technology than PRT systems. It is less bleeding edge. There are fewer new technologies to go wrong.

Here is the link to CyberTran and to various PRT systems:

Cybertran
ULTra
SkyWeb Express (formerly Auto Tax2000, formerly PRT2000)
Austrans
CabinTaxi PRT System


References

[1] John A. Dearien, Struthers Richard D., and Kent D. McCarthy, CyberTran: A Systems Analysis Solution to the High Cost and Low Passenger Appeal of Conventional Rail Transportation Systems. Nov 2001, CyberTran International, Inc, 22/Jun/2004. PDF Link

[2] Ibid 1 P.5 (Note the cost per seat in examples given is five to ten times less. But once you include greater utilization from computation, one tenth the cost becomes a conservative estimate.)

[3] Stacey C. Davis and Susan W. Diegel, TRANSPORTATION ENERGY DATA BOOK: – Edition 22, ORNL-6967 (Edition 22 of ORNL-5198). Sep 2002. Center for Transportation Analysis Science and Technology Division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the U.S. DOE, 23/Sep/2005 PDF Link.

Table 2.11 Passenger Travel and Energy Use in the United States, 2000

[4] John A. Dearien (Junior), “Ultralight Rail and Energy Use,” in Encyclopedia of Energy, ed. Cutler J. Cleveland (Elsevier Publishing, March 2004), 255-66.

The calculation is based on Dearien’s estimate of .106 passenger miles per gallon. If the electricity is generated via renewable energy and transmitted through the grid, line losses might be as high as 20%. Converting that to gasoline equivalent gives the higher figure. In our current grid, line losses generally result in about 36 units of energy delivered for every BTU of heat consumed. This is due to both thermal and transmission losses. That results in the lower figure. If solar energy was generated along the guideway (as CyberTran is seriously considering), you would have no thermal losses and virtually no transmission losses. In that case the MPG equivalent figure would be around 330 MPG.

[5] Dylan Saloner and Neil Garcia-Sinclair, “Environmental Impact of Ultra Light Rail Transit: Lessening the External Costs of Transportation,” Alameda, California, 9/October 2006. p5,pp 20-21 – Unpublished.