Group Wants to Put ‘Personal Rapid Transit’ Pods on Boston’s Streets

Small, solar-powered pods would transport people to their destination much like a Gondola, according to one company’s proposal.

As Boston starts to think about revitalizing a neighborhood street in Dorchester, transportation advocates are pitching the idea of bringing solar-powered, personalized pods to the area to ship residents around, rather than relying on public transportation like MBTA buses.

“Ideally, I would like to see the [pods] replace the bus lines. They are the least effective, least loved part of the MBTA. [The pods] would deliver people to the trains and the ferries, so the MBTA could focus its service in the high capacity parts of the system,” said Judeth Van Hamm, president of South Shore Mobility.

On Thursday, Van Hamm and representatives from her organization will make their cases before Dorchester residents and Boston transportation officials, calling on them to install “Solar Personal Rapid Transit” pods—much like the ones used at London’s Heathrow Airport—as an alternative form of transportation. The pitch will take place during a community hearing in Mattapan, which will focus on efforts to revamp a section of Dorchester’s Columbia Point neighborhoods, specifically, Mt. Vernon Street.

Van Hamm said with future construction, redevelopments, and roadway repairs slated for the area, it would be a perfect time to pilot the solar pods, and to show the state the benefits they could bring to the Massachusetts transportation system and the environment. She said the idea is to have the rapid transit alternative installed along a mile-and-a-half strip of the area, and then “wherever you see a bus line, that becomes a solar personal transit line.”

Here is the pitch from South Shore Mobility:


South Shore Mobility has been actively engaged with a company called “JPods Solar Personal Rapid Transit,” during their effort to introduce the technology to both the South Shore, and now, Boston.

As shown in video demonstrations, JPods vehicles run along a metal strip, much like a Gondola, and provide personalized space for riders. The concept looks like something out of a Sci-Fi film, however, a company spokesman compared it to a “horizontal elevator.”

According to Van Hamm, a former member of the Boston Redevelopment Association, if installed, the solar-powered pods would cut greenhouse gas emissions, helping stabilize the impact of local climate change, and provide “superb transportation” while assisting the MBTA so they could make a profit and create a stronger transportation network. “The technology all exists,” said Van Hamm. “JPods would build the line, and get their own venture capital for it.”

Bill James, who runs management operations for JPods, said so far, there hasn’t been much of a market for the idea in the U.S., but other countries have embraced the concept. “We have a whole bunch of projects we have been asking to build, but getting the rights-of-way has been incredibly complex,” he said. If Boston were to latch on to the idea of the alternate, green-friendly network of pods, it would be the first city in the U.S. to do so.

The community meeting will be held at the library at 1350 Blue Hill Ave., in Mattapan, on Thursday, June 27, at 6 p.m.

Below is a video from the company, JPods, showing how some of their systems work:

  • Matt Karolian

    Why in the world would you invest in additional infrastructure at this level when self-driving autonomous vehciles are right around the corner?

    • Christopher Fry

      The question implies that “autonomous
      vehicles” are free (ie not an investment) and provide better service than PRT.
      Both assumptions are false.

      Let’s review the major options:
      1. Do nothing. The roads and transit degrades, impeding transportation, the economy, freedom, etc.

      2. Let roads and transit continue to degrade but invest in “all terrain vehicles” to traverse the pot holes, crumbling roadways, etc. See any number of post-apocalypse sci-fi
      movies for how well that works

      3. Invest more in conventional transit. This is expensive per passenger mile and relatively few people want to wait for the bus or subway to take them from where they aren’t
      to where they don’t want to go.

      4. Invest in autonomous vehicles like the Google car. Yes it is each person buying their own, but from a personal dollars standpoint does it really matter to you whether you buy a car or pay more in taxes plus bus fare? You could say yes
      because you have a choice, but if you have to get to work, it is not so much of
      a free choice. Autonomous cars are even more expensive than traditional cars because of all the extra sensors. Plus there are a issues with liability: ie when there’s an accident, do you blame the software developer, the vehicle manufacturer,
      the driver/passenger, etc. Furthermore they don’t solve the congestion problem and you still have to maintain the
      roads for high capacity, and probably upgrade them to make accommodations for the deficiencies in the sensors.

      5. Invest in Personal Rapid Transit. Using the right technology, PRT is cheaper per passenger mile, faster point to point (with average distance to a station about
      ¼ mile), much safer than cars, uses less land, causes less pollution and overall much more energy efficient than any other form of motorized transport in cities and dense suburbs. You can text while driving, sleep or even be drunk without
      causing accidents and not be prone to road rage. My guess is that the average Boston commuter would simply work on their laptop during a much shorter commute time. In my “judges choice” entry into the MIT business school competition on
      sustainable solutions in 2011, I concluded that the best PRT systems would cost
      10 (or maybe 15) cents per passenger mile for the half of the US population that live in the densest locales. This number includes both capital and operating expenses. Compare that with 50 cents to dollars (depending the externalities counted like oil wars and other health
      degraders) for cars. I estimated the cost of the Boston red line at $1.71 per passenger mile a few years ago. (The fare price covers only 1/3 the cost… taxes make up the rest). Buses aren’t great either … autonomous vehicles will get
      stuck behind them just like you do now.

      Transportation infrastructure issues are complex. The
      popular press does a poor job at explaining them and few professionals (including US and MA DOT) understand the overwhelming benefits of advanced PRT systems.