Transforming Tyson’s Corner via PRT

An option for the Tysons Circulator Plan. First version: Feb ’09. Current revision: May ’10.

ULTra is a battery-driven, 200-mpg-equivalent, elevated personal rapid transit (PRT) system with many four-person vehicles. First deployment is scheduled for London Heathrow Airport in Summer 2010, to serve Heathrow’s new Terminal 5. Working as circulator transit for office parks, airports, universities, and other major activity centers, ULTra is faster than a car. In these applications, ULTra makes carpooling, Metro, and bus more effective, by solving the “last mile problem.” Each ULTra vehicle takes 30 cars off the road. PRT also enables longer bike commutes and shopping trips. A three-minute youtube video of ULTra can be viewed here. Peer-reviewed market research for two San Francisco Bay Area transit-served major job centers, Palo Alto’s Stanford Research Park (SRP) and Pleasanton’s Hacienda Business Park, forecasts a PRT-induced commuting mode reduction from more than 80% single occupancy vehicle (SOV) down to 45% SOV. In these two studies, carpooling increased to more than 30% and commuter rail transit increased beyond 15%. Such commuting shift shifts acres of parking for higher use.

The Virginia Legislature’s January 2009 “Viability of PRT for Virginia” report concludes: “Interest and development of PRT appears to be growing around the world. With the inevitable construction of at least two systems and the testing underway of several others (although in most cases not at full scale), it can be argued that PRT is proving to be a feasible technology.” In California, three cities are pursuing PRT systems: San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Alameda.

Tysons Corner is a well-known suburban “edge city,” on 4.9 square miles with a worker-heavy daytime population of more than 100,000. Below is an approximate PRT system concept sketch.  The red, green, and blue segments roughly follow the three shuttle bus circulator routes shown in the Tysons Strawman report (see below for a shuttle bus map). Each of the three PRT segments has roughly 15 stations and 4 miles of PRT guideway, with a very rough cost estimate of $30M to $60M per segment. The latest ULTra cost information may be found here. The greater PRT system covers a 4km x 2.5 area:

Approximate system concept.

High resolution satellite imagery of the above sketch can be found at: http://www.ultraprt.net/cms/tysons2b.jpg (4000 x 2800, 3MB).

Relevant PRT Quotes

  • “I can’t think of a more promising location for PRT in the region than Tyson’s Corner. Everyone agrees that its auto-based transportation network can’t support any more growth. I think the enthusiasm level for circulator buses is going to be low, and conversely you may be able to generate some enthusiasm for PRT as an alternative. The workforce in Tysons is fairly affluent; if you can save them significant time relative to a circulator bus (a pretty low hurdle given how congested Tysons is), they may be willing to spend some money and take some chances on PRT. There’s lots of private sector dollars in this area, which has more office space than downtown DC, so you may not have to depend on public funding. I believe PRT would complement, and make more feasible, a redevelopment plan to improve walkability in Tysons. As long as auto traffic volumes as high as they are, the landscape will continue to be dominated by parking and wide roads. Even in the short run, just putting PRT into the current development pattern would get a lot more people walking, since a majority of the buildings in Tysons will not have their own station. Get significant numbers of affluent people on foot and the political support for walkable redevelopment will grow.” – anonymous local expert.
  • “We’ve concocted a system where local trips take an auto. That’s our biggest tragedy. Streetcars, such as those used in Portland’s Pearl District, and elevated people movers, like those in downtown Miami, are moving people from rail stations to their final destinations. But a new concept, PRT, may help revolutionize urban transportation, providing a cost-effective way to get people from train stations to where they need to go.” – Peter Calthorpe, co-founder, Congress for New Urbanism.
  • One of the advantages of a PRT network “is that it offers a lot of flexibility. It’s much less expensive than traditional transit. It doesn’t serve the same needs as high-speed rail or BART metro. It’s a complement to those systems,” Laura Stuchinksy, Sustainability Officer, City of San Jose Department of Transportation.
  • “All the advantages of New Urbanism – its compact land saving density, its walkable mix of uses, and its integrated range of housing opportunities – would be supported and amplified by a circulation system that offers fundamentally different choices in mobility and access. Smart Growth and new Urbanism have begun the work of redefining America’s twenty-first century development paradigms. Now it is time to redefine the circulation armature that supports them. It is short sighted to think that significant changes in land-use and regional structure can be realized without fundamentally reordering our circulation system. We’ve been developing TOD without the T for far too long.  PRT is the T.” – Peter Calthorpe.

PRT is Faster than a Car. Trip time from Freddie Mac ( 8000 Jones Branch Dr.) to Metro Stop #2 (Tysons Blvd & Chain Bridge Rd – Tysons Corner Center):

  • PRT: 3 minutes (including 20 second average wait time)
  • Driving: 7 minutes. Include driving 0.9 miles in Tysons traffic plus moderate Tysons parking hassle
  • Circulator bus: 15 minutes. Makes multiple stops (a “milk run”). Circulators are usually a bit faster than streetcar.
  • Streetcar: 17.5 minutes (6.5 min average wait time, 11 minute 1.4 mile trip @ 8 min/per mile [jogging speed])

120 years ago, streetcar transit was a brand new technology, providing faster, better, and cheaper local transit than the alternatives. Starting in 1888, streetcars changed the way cities were built. Likewise, PRT is a brand new technology, providing faster, better, and cheaper transit than current alternatives. Conventional local transit serves narrow strips at a slow pace. Non-stop, faster-than-a-car PRT serves two-dimensional areas. Cities are two-dimensional areas, not narrow strips. A PRT system can put all Tysons workers and residents within a 300 meter walk of a PRT station; conventional local transit will serve only a small fraction of that many people. At the Congress for New Urbanism 2005 Conference, Peter Calthorpe said, “One of my pet peeves is that we’ve been dealing with 19th Century transit technology. We can do better. We can have ultra light elevated transit systems with lightweight vehicles. Because the vehicles are lighter, the system will use less energy. If you think about what you’d want from the ideal transit technology, it’s PRT: a) stations right where you are, within walking distance, b) no waiting.”

Media Coverage of PRT for Tysons:

  • The last mile in Tysons Corner: PRT by Steve Offutt, http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=5181. “Instead of waiting until Tysons’ very long-term [$165M per mile] fixed-guideway transit is built, Tysons could become a visionary community by building and implementing a state-of-the-art PRT system at the beginning.”

City planning theory applied to Tysons and how to transform Tysons

1. The Tysons Circulator Study should focus on providing very high level-of-service. Some key Tysons Circulator Study “use cases” are as follows:

  • It’s 500’ as the crow flies from SAIC at 1710 Saic Drive to Panera Bread for lunch in the Pike Seven Shopping Center. People currently drive this, rather than walk. How does the circulator make this connection?
  • It’s 800’ as the crow flies from BAE Systems, 8201 Greensboro Dr to the Tysons Galleria Legal Seafoods for lunch. People currently drive this, rather than walk. How does the circulator make this connection?

These same questions arise for new residents in condos. How do they get to Starbucks without a car?

A key consideration for the effectiveness of a circulator stems from “value-of-time.” A tech worker earning $100K per year and working 40 hours per week has a value-of-time while working of $50 per hour. During that worker’s commute, value of time is only $25/hour. The scarce lunch hour (now often 40 minutes or less) uniquely has the highest value-of-time, $100/hour. The measure of a transformative circulator is whether it will attract ridership during lunchtime. In the US, there are no suburban circulators that meet this test. (Some high ridership bus circulators can be found here: http://www.cities21.org/tdm2.htm#Shuttle). Tysons won’t transform without being effective for non-commute trips.

2. PRT enables increased walkability. Congress for New Urbanism co-founder Peter Calthorpe is a regional planning and transit-oriented-development expert. Calthorpe believes PRT is a transformative catalyst. Calthorpe is pro-pedestrian, pro-livability, and pro-PRT, and he sees the three being complementary.

PRT provides a way to hop over the currently pedestrian-hostile Tysons arterial streets so that pedestrians can access the walkable zones. Over time, more and more zones will become walkable, but PRT can provide an immediate increase in pedestrians, by eliminating the need for a car. How pedestrian-hostile are Tysons arterials? Grandmothers with wheeled shopping carts literally risk their lives trying to make jay-walked, mid-street crossings on Leesburg Pike (with a teeny median providing scant protection when half-way across). PRT is the catalyst that allows the current walkable area within Tysons to expand over time.

3. Streetcars won’t work

Typical streetcars provide an average speed of 7-12 mph for local-stop service (6.5 mph from a separate analysis) – jogging speed. Streetcars are further slowed long waiting time – headways are 13 minutes during peak hour in Portland. The streetcar speed is often exceeded by ordinary local-stop bus services. One clear speed-and-reliability benefit of the bus is intrinsic to the technology: Buses have the physical ability to go around obstructions that occur in their lane, while the streetcar is stuck behind them. For details, please see:

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