Morgantown’s People Mover

Transportation is one of my favorite topics here at The New Localization. It’s so basic and yet it’s such an economic, environmental, social, and political heavyweight. It has everything to do with the design of our cities. As late as the 1970s, we Americans were still dreaming of new and innovative ways to move people from Point A to Point B, but fresh ideas today seem a bit harder to come by.

That’s why I was pretty excited to discover this radical transportation mode operating in Morgantown, West, Virginia:

Under the Nixon administration, a prototype of America’s first “Personal Rapid Transit” or “PRT” was funded and later built in Morgantown, West Virginia, home of West Virginia University. This system is made up of small cars pulled automatically along a track which gives riders the ability to bypass stations along the route.

Considered a white elephant in its day as the project ended up going significantly over budget, America never built another such system. Yet 30 years later the line is immensely popular among University students (as evidenced by its amazing Yelp reviews). With an estimated 15,000 trips per day along its 8.7 mile track, the line is largely credited with solving Morgantown’s traffic and congestion problems enough to allow the university to expand from 10,000 to 30,000 students. So given the financial burdens of our nation’s highways, why are these transportation systems simply relegated to Disneyworld and airports? Once thought to be the “ride of the future”, why isn’t the PRT part of the transportation conversation today?

One explanation is that, logistically speaking, systems like this are tough to pull off. From elevated rails and platforms to costs, this post from light rail advocates does a pretty good job outlining the practical and logistical challenges that would come with retrofitting a city with a personal rapid transit line. But a little difficulty on the front end isn’t really enough to entirely sideline a good idea. Jane Jacobs posits that the real reason for our collective disregard for any transit system stems from a much bigger issue: our economic development strategy as a nation revolves around the automobile. From her book Dark Ages Ahead,

 “In 1956, when Congress passed legislation funding the Interstate Highway System – a government program then unprecedented in America for its vast physical scope and vast cost – the ostensible reason for the program was to allow residents and workers to evacuate cities and towns speedily and efficiently in case of emergency (a Roman type of purpose). However, memories of the Great Depression were sufficiently fresh for everyone to recognize instantly the real and serious purpose of the program: full employment; guarantee of jobs: jobs building roads, jobs designing, manufacturing, servicing, and repairing automobiles, jobs refining and transporting oil and filling gasoline tanks. President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself acknowledged this purpose in his remarks about the automobile as a mainstay of the economy and employment, when he spoke at the George Washington Bridge in New York at a celebration as the highway program was getting under way.”

I don’t think there’s any one right answer to the question of how to get from Point A to Point B, as this is really a context specific issue. But since all great economies are predicated on a diversity of choices, it seems unwise for our cities to invest in a mono-modal transportation system, especially if that system takes up to 25% of the average household’s budget out of people’s pocket and out of the local economy.  We need to start thinking innovatively and seriously again about alternative means of travel. We need to experiment with fresh ideas and new ways of doing things. Something like Morgantown’s People Mover may not be a bad start.

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