In the 1970s, personal rapid transit (PRT) was supposed to be America’s great transportation saviour. It combined the privacy of a privately owned car with the efficiency of mass transit. But despite a great deal of hype, this futuristic transportation tech is still mostly relegated to the future that never was.
Serious research on PRT systems was already taking place in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s — when the economy was in the toilet and the energy crisis hit — that it started to become a mainstream cause in futurist circles. Americans loved their cars, but the stress that came along with them, both in the form of environmental harm and congested highways, was becoming too much to bear. The PRT was supposed to preserve the American ideal of transportation independence, and yet draw from the best ideas of mass transportation.
The September 10, 1972 edition of the comic strip “Our New Age” promised Nixon-era readers of the Sunday funnies that PRT systems were just around the corner. Written by Athelstan Spilhaus and drawn by Gene Fawcette, the strip showed that Americans wouldn’t have to sacrifice their independence to use a track-based system of transport.
From the 1972 “Our New Age” strip titled People Movers:
The automobile “personalised” mechanical transportation. Individuals or families could go in their own car from their home to where they chose. But now, with so many individual drivers, cars form uncoupled “trains” on the highways. Modern people movers must retain the individualized wishes for privacy that the automobile gives but be run on a mass basis.
Spilhaus and Fawcette highlighted the wasteful condition of having so many private cars sitting idle. With a PRT system, they envisioned a kind of maximum efficiency would be achieved:
The average private automobile spends more than 90% of its time immobile, but car-like pods automatically directed on guideways, coming when summoned and going where individuals choose, may be acceptable to people as a substitute for autos…
But Spilhaus acknowledges that a PRT system would work best in cities. High density would be important for such a system to remain efficient:
…particularly in cities — business districts, airports, shopping centres, universities and medical complexes. They may be suspended by air cushions, propelled by linear electric motors in the track and guided to their destination by computers.
In the future, people movers will respect your individual desire to go in privacy from where you are to where you want to go, without stopping where others want to stop!
Here in the early 21st century, the PRT is still a promise of tomorrow. The town of Milton-Keynes in Britain is even working on a PRT system that they hope will utilise 200 pods.
Heathrow International Airport currently has their PRT system up and running. It currently utilizes 21 pods that can hold up to four people each. But the future isn’t quite as robust as the 1970s had hoped. Somewhat disappointingly, the Heathrow system only has two destinations: a terminal and a parking lot.
Pictures: Scanned from the September 10, 1972 edition of Our New Age written by Athelstan Spilhaus and drawn by Gene Fawcette.