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.