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Silicon Valley Considers Personal Rapid Transit System

Can an innovative transit idea keep Silicon Valley -- home to tech giants like Google and Microsoft -- from choking on congestion? Or is the answer to their problems much simpler?

Steve Rhodes/Flickr CC
The world’s most important company -- the one that revolutionized our whole idea of geography -- is located smack-dab in the middle of the nation’s most innovative region. Well, not exactly smack-dab. And that’s the problem.

As anybody who has ever used Google Earth knows, the Internet company’s world headquarters are in Mountain View, Calif., located in Silicon Valley near San Jose. But its campus isn’t exactly in the center of Mountain View. Rather, Google, as well as LinkedIn, Intuit and the local operation of Microsoft, are based in North Bayshore, an ’80s-era office park two miles north of downtown Mountain View. It’s a classic example of the business campus most often favored by tech barons: blocks of attractive but low-slung, auto-oriented office buildings, just a little too far away from one another for walking.

Google is currently doing its first-ever campus master plan in anticipation of an increase in employment from 18,000 today to 30,000 in the next decade or two. Likewise, Mountain View is about to create a plan for the North Bayshore district that deals with the gnarly issue of how to accommodate Google’s growth. But North Bayshore is hemmed in on three sides -- by the San Francisco Bay to the north, the former Moffett Field air station to the east and Highway 101 to the south. Plus, the Mountain View transit center, served by both commuter rail and light rail, is located in the city’s downtown, two miles away from Google’s headquarters.

Google has tried to combat the congestion by becoming one of the larger transit operators in the San Francisco Bay Area: The company runs shuttles from San Francisco, the East Bay and South Bay. Nevertheless, it’s a classic economic development problem. Your most important company, the company anybody else would kill to have, has laid down deep roots in your town, but possibly not in the location you’d prefer. So what do you do?

The answer, as you might expect in Silicon Valley, involves innovation. As the city undertakes the North Bayshore district plan, some local folks are looking at a Jetson-style idea: personal rapid transit, or PRT. It’s is an elevated rail transit system, but one that emulates the automobile. Each driverless vehicle (sometimes called a car or pod) holds up to four passengers, and can go directly to the rider’s destination without making additional stops, as larger rail transit systems must do. Stops can be small and frequent -- sometimes literally inside the building. Computerized systems keep the cars from colliding with one another, and because it’s powered by electricity, a PRT car is as quiet as a Prius and does not pollute.

A PRT system is a great solution on a campus that’s just a bit too big for walking. (Google’s bike-sharing program is already at capacity.) The world’s newest PRT system operates at Heathrow Airport, connecting terminals to remote parking. The wow factor is so great that the remote lot served by PRT now charges more per day than any other lot at Heathrow. (A 1970s-era PRT, considered the first of its kind, still operates in Morgantown, W.Va., serving the state university campus.)

Not surprisingly, the companies behind modern PRT systems are located near Google’s campus. Ultra Global, which runs the Heathrow PRT, has its U.S. operations in Berkeley. SkyTran, which is developing a different type of PRT system that it calls the “physical Internet,” is located immediately adjacent to Google.

But is PRT the right solution to Google’s commuting problem? That’s not clear. Putting in a commuter-scale PRT system in Mountain View would require building an elevated system, most likely above the city’s streets, for at least two miles and maybe more. Plus, the system would have to be capable of carrying 6,000 to 8,000 people per hour at peak times.

Sometimes, however, high-tech innovation isn’t the only solution. At a recent transportation workshop in Mountain View, Steve Raney of Ultra Global pointed out that the PRT idea is only one of several options open to the city of Mountain View and its tech companies.

While PRT is sexy, the other options are deceptively boring and low-tech. The first one is simply to charge for parking, rather standard for most urban areas around the world but, so far, a foreign idea in North Bayshore. The second is to reduce the need for commuting by building housing and office space in North Bayshore. That way, employees can walk or ride their bikes to work or at least limit their travel on the PRT to a stop or two.

In suburban Silicon Valley, the Googles, LinkedIns and other tech companies may yet learn that the key to competitiveness in the future is to take advantage of a remarkably efficient and resilient invention that is many centuries old: the city.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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