By: Monica Sharma, Masters Architecture Student Architecture Southern Illinois University
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by John Foley, 2020
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IF PRT IS SO GREAT, WHY DON’T WE SEE MORE OF IT?
and how ATRA can help fix this issue
by: Peter Muller, ATRA President
There are many reasons why PRT has been slow to catch on. They include competition from established transit systems, the fact that PRT usually needs to be acquired by a transit agency (not an individual or city like a car or driverless shuttle), a complicated regulatory environment, etc. I am reading a book (Super Thinking by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann) that I believe goes to the crux of the matter: confirmation bias, disconfirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. The book suggests some antidotes including “thinking grey”, “Devil’s advocate” and “don’t trust your gut” which you may like to read about but which we can hardly thrust upon PRT naysayers. However, the book describes some historic ideas that were slow in catching on, that we can learn from.
In 1912, Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift. He even found fossil evidence in support. However, he was not a geologist and was unable to explain the mechanism by which continents could drift. The theory “…sat uninvestigated by mainstream geologists for forty years until the new science of paleomagnetism started creating additional data in support of it…”.
A nineteenth-century Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis investigated the fact that the death rate of mothers giving birth with the help of doctors was 10 percent while it was only 4 percent for mothers aided by midwives. He determined the probable cause was that the doctors were not washing their hands after handling cadavers and had them do so with a solution of chlorinated lime. The death rate immediately dropped to match that of the midwives’ deliveries.
The next part of the book is worth quoting more fully:
“Despite the clear drop in the death rate, his theories were completely rejected by the medical community at large. In part, doctors were offended by the idea that they were killing their patients. Others were so hung up on the perceived deficiencies of Semmelweis’s theoretical explanation that they ignored the empirical evidence that the handwashing was improving mortality.” Semmelweis’s ideas only took hold twenty years later after “…Louis Pasteur’s unquestionable confirmation of germ theory”.
Both Wegener and Semmelweis “…noticed obvious and important empirical truths that should have been investigated by other scientists but were reflexively rejected by these scientists because the suggested explanations were not in line with the conventional thinking of the time. Today this is known as a Semmelweis reflex. Individuals still hang on to old theories in the face of seemingly overwhelming evidence-it happens all the time in science and in life in general. The human tendency to gather and interpret new information in a biased way to confirm preexisting beliefs is called confirmation bias”.
While ATRA can do little to combat confirmation bias, I believe we can learn from the key commonality in these stories – in both cases, the ideas caught on once there was more credible supporting evidence. While PRT is now well proven in a few niche applications, its effectiveness as a solution to urban mobility, congestion and climate change has not been so well proven. There are only a small number of studies that have investigated applications where PRT is deployed on a wide-area basis. Those studies that have been completed for large deployments are either out of date or were underfunded and undertaken by consultants lacking strong credibility and statistically-valid local travel data or both. ATRA may be able to help get large feasibility studies undertaken by credible consultants with sufficient resources to obtain strong data about the public’s propensity to pay for riding a large PRT deployment and the cost of building, maintaining and operating it as well as all of the other direct and indirect costs and benefits.
There are several US communities such as Greenville and Atlanta, and many more elsewhere that would like to undertake large PRT feasibility studies but are struggling to raise the necessary funds. There are also many large philanthropies anxious to fight climate change and willing to fund applied research in order to do so. Most of these philanthropies will not fund government agencies or for-profit companies. ATRA is a 501-C3 charity and is eligible for this type of funding.
ATRA could apply for and obtain philanthropic funding for supporting PRT feasibility studies aimed at understanding how to mitigate climate change and congestion by implementing solar-powered PRT in communities suffering from low transit use. ATRA could then entertain requests for funding from these communities and provide some of the funding needed while also helping ensure the studies are undertaken by credible consultants giving educated consideration to the PRT option based on statistically-valid data. ATRA could then also support presentation of the findings by its members at appropriate conferences around the world.
I am excited to announce that the ATRA Board believes this could make a difference and has decided to pursue an initiative along these lines.
by J. Edward Anderson, PhD, P.E.
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by J. Edward Anderson, PhD, P. E.
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A key benefit of automated transit is its ability to reduce auto Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and parking requirements. Many of these same benefits can be achieved by using robots operating on sidewalks to deliver small items, thus eliminating person trips to and from stores and restaurants by any mode. In the case of items that are already being ordered online and delivered, sidewalk robots can reduce local truck traffic. In some cases, automated transit and sidewalk delivery robots will serve the same geographical area, and a comprehensive planning model will benefit from taking both into account.
With the exception of the Rivium ParkShuttle, which allows pedestrians and autos to cross its dedicated roadway at grade in certain locations, automated transit systems currently require human on-board supervision or an exclusive guideway. Delivery robots, on the other hand, are now making hundreds of deliveries every day on public sidewalks with no human supervisor nearby.
In addition to small sidewalk robots that travel 4-6 mph (6-10 kph), larger robot delivery vehicles that operate on roadways are also being developed. While these show promise, they are currently not autonomous and require either an on-board supervisor or a chase car when operated on public roads. Only sidewalk robots will be considered below.
CURRENT STATE OF SIDEWALK ROBOT INDUSTRY
A number of companies are now developing sidewalk robots, and big names include Amazon, FedEx, and PostMates. The current leader in the field in terms of actual systems deployed is a smaller company named Starship Technologies (www.starship.xyz ) which is currently operating hundreds of robots in the US and UK with no accompanying human attendants.
Over 30 Starship robots are operating at the Fairfax, VA campus of George Mason University (GMU) just outside of Washington, DC. The robots can be remotely controlled by human operators when necessary but are mostly autonomous. In addition to operating on sidewalks, they can cross streets at marked crosswalks. Similar fleets of Starship robots are operating at Northern Arizona University, Purdue University in Indiana, and in the town of Milton Keynes in the UK.
The Starship robots use cameras and ultrasonic sensors to determine their immediate environment, and radar to assist the cameras in detecting oncoming cars when crossing a street. Robots from some competing companies also use lidar. While Starship robots have GPS, their primary method of localization is to match prominent straight lines currently visible with corresponding lines in photos taken earlier of the same area. This gives the robot’s location to within 2 inches (5 cm).
The Starship robot and most of its competitors operate only outdoors. This simplifies operations since the robots don’t have to go through doorways, nor are there concerns about losing GPS signals and communications links while indoors.
In the US, where Starship robots operate mostly on university campuses, the deliveries are generally snacks or fully prepared meals. In Milton Keynes, deliveries are to individual residences and also include groceries and small packages. The delivery surcharge is currently $2 in the US and one British Pound in the UK. In a typical US campus system, a restaurant or convenience store employee places the delivery into one of the robots waiting just outside their establishment. The robot then travels to a location on campus specified by the consumer at the time the order was placed, and he or she is notified by text message to meet the robot. The consumer then uses their phone to unlock the robot’s lid so they can access the delivered items.
The primary requirement for a system of sidewalk delivery robots is, of course, a suitable network of sidewalks that are wide enough to allow robots to easily pass oncoming pedestrians. Since the Starship robot is about 22.4 inches (57 cm) wide, this implies a minimum sidewalk width of about five feet. Competing robots have similar widths. The robots at GMU generally travel on sidewalks at least eight feet (245 cm) wide.
The CBDs of many older cities have narrow, congested sidewalks that put robots at a disadvantage compared with alternative delivery modes, such as bicycle couriers. In newer Major Activity Centers and in many suburbs the sidewalks have adequate width and are less congested, thus facilitating robot operation.
In addition to a suitable network of sidewalks, a practical robot delivery system needs a high enough density of potential customers to make it economically viable. Too low a density would require excessive trip lengths which would reduce the number of customers per day each robot could serve. This is why most of the systems deployed so far have been on large university campuses where tens of thousands of students, faculty, and staff can be served by robots with a typical trip length of less than 0.75 mile (1.2 km).
Many of the same moderately dense urban areas that look promising for automated, at-grade shuttles such as the EasyMile EZ10 and Local Motors Olli, also work well for sidewalk delivery robots. Unlike shuttles which still operate in test mode with attendants, delivery robots are now fully operational in multiple locations. By the time automated shuttles are deployed in significant numbers, it can be expected that sidewalk robots will be commonplace. Since delivery by robot is sometimes an alternative to a person trip on a shuttle, transportation models will ideally take both modes into account.
ATRA members get a big discount and new members get a year’s free membership in addition!
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by J. Edward Anderson, first ATRA President.
2003 – The Twenty-Eighth Year.
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