We long ago lost the skill of paying for the things we need: I won't bore you with the statistics of how far we are behind in our infrastructure investments. You've heard them from me dozens of times. I just want a solution. Regarding transit, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and the University of California, Davis, recently released a study indicating that responsible transit development would not only vastly curb greenhouse gases but would save the world economy about $100 trillion in the coming decades. But, you know: spend a few dollars to save a few hundred trillion? Just not going to happen.

So we have to find a better way.

Note the lightweight erector-set guideway and the cheap, tiny vehicle. Cool.

As far as transit goes? I have seen that better way. The solution is called EcoPRT, which stands for ecological personal rapid transit. It was developed by two guys here in Raleigh, and it will change the world. Teaching Assistant Professor Seth Hollar (my friend, I should disclose) and founder of howstuffworks.com Marshall Brain, both of North Carolina State University, addressed the manifold problems of building transit in an age of no-tax madness and post-community me-first greed. Both Brain and Hollar are highly interested in tech entrepreneurship -- and given Brain's enormous success with HowStuffWorks, they're obviously not bad at it.

Raleigh is like many successful American cities: It's grown quickly enough that the need for big-city services like transit have emerged while no-to-everything types still hold much of the political power, and so traffic has burgeoned and service has stalled. In this environment, Brain got to thinking how close Raleigh was to being what he calls "the city of the future." Its nearby Research Triangle Park was the model of research park development in the second half of the twentieth century and is reconfiguring itself to meet current needs; Raleigh's groundbreaking Greenway urban trail system encompasses more than a hundred miles of trails used by hikers, dog-walkers, bicyclists, and commuters. NC State's new Hunt Library is celebrated worldwide as the cutting edge of information technology. Tech companies like Red Hat and Citrix are making major investments in the city.

In front of NCSU's iconic new Hunt library, EcoPRT vehicles show they can come down off their guideway, too. Image courtesy of Technicon Design.

And the city's transit system is a bunch of overmatched buses sitting in the same traffic that people are clamoring to get out of. It's trying, but without resources it can do only so much.

Tech entrepreneurs Brain and Hollar wanted to do something about that. The first page of a slide show they present takes as basic principles that "American car culture is holding us back; the 21st century needs a better system; existing rapid transit systems are not the answer; managing guideways is essential." Most of those seem self-evident -- car culture, unchanged, will produce more of the sprawl it's produced so far; and without controlled guideways, transit just sits in the same traffic it's designed to avoid. But that business about existing systems not working?

Light rail, rail, underground rail, and elevated rail all share the same problem, Brain and Hollar say: they're just way too expensive. They're also inefficient: just as people commonly note that a car is inefficient because it spends 90 percent of its lifespan just sitting still depreciating, transit investment tends to do the same thing: you build an enormous bridge capable of holding up a 40-ton rail car once every 18 minutes, and 17 of every 18 minutes it's just sitting empty.

"We thought there had to be a better way," Hollar told me in the classroom that serves as EcoPRT's development headquarters, with a wooden mockup of one of the two-person, 500-pound autonomous vehicles that Hollar and Brain envision running on extremely light elevated guideways connecting various parts of Raleigh, plausibly even able -- in the autonomous-vehicle future -- to descend from the guideway and provide door-to-door service.

EcoPRT improves on the the simple PRT systems that currently use little autonomous, self-driving cars to ferry people on guideways, mostly around airports and universities. (Though Masdar City, in the United Arab Emirates, has begun using PRT for general transit and has already served more than a million riders.) But though cheaper than the $50-100 million per mile of rail transit or the $20 million per mile of highway construction, current PRT costs $15 million or more per mile. Hollar and Brain knew Raleigh lacks the political will to make that kind of investment -- plus, with long wait times and either few stations (with long distances between them) or many stops (and inconvenience in using transit for longer trips), standard transit just wasn't going to work.

So with help from NCSU students they've designed EcoPRT, which:

  • will cost about $1 million per mile for elevated guideways;
  • will use tiny two-person vehicles weighing only about 500 pounds each (and thus can hold two people and plenty of stuff and still not hit a thousand pounds);
  • will use existing parking decks as stops, providing parking for users and storage for PRT pods between peak periods;
  • will be financed and built by business and other entities (universities, downtown alliances) that, at such a low cost, see the value of the investment.

This is a possible route between the two NCSU libraries.

Hollar and Brain tick off benefits of the model: Since the guideways need to support only a couple thousand pounds at a time (far less than even pedestrian bridges, Hollar notes), the structure will be far cheaper than other transit structures, and its light footprint means it can use existing rights of way, making no more street-level impact than a string of utility poles. Autonomous vehicles mean no intermediate stops once you've told them where you want to go, and computer control means extremely efficient traffic management. Units parked at stops -- again, stops using existing parking structures -- means no time spent waiting for the next unit and little money needed to get started.

"Add the word 'supercheap' to that," Brain says, smiling. They estimate the guideway at $1 million a mile, and each two-person car at $10,000.

That's key. Hollar notes that a recent pedestrian bridge-greenway project in the area that was very well received cost $11 million.

"We could put the entire EcoPRT system into NC State for that," he says.

The idea starts with a line connecting NC State's two libraries -- the Hunt, on the developing Centennial Campus, and the D.H. Hill library on main campus. They're a little more than a mile apart, and the Wolf Line bus keeps a steady stream of students moving back and forth across main streets -- but in traffic -- all day long. EcoPRT units operating at even 25 mph could make that trip in six minutes and keep thousands of students -- and dozens of buses -- out of traffic every day. (Hollar assures that with more engineering 60 mph is perfectly plausible, making EcoPRT useful for intercity transit as well.)

It will work -- plus be enormously cool -- which, Hollar and Brain have found from discussions with developers and retailers, raises interest. "From a developer's standpoint, you've got 50,000 people [the NC State community] who can get to you with no parking requirements," Hollar says. Plus it's so cool! They envision a busy shopping center a half-mile away seeing the benefit of investing less than a million dollars to make it easy -- and cool! -- for students to get to its stores and restaurants. Downtown Raleigh is only two miles away, so the city, downtown merchants, and the business community could stretch the system into downtown, even including a loop to hit several stops, for only a few million dollars. And with the investment low, the system can keep ticket prices low and still reimburse its investors over a short term.

If this all sounds like city-of-the-future stuff, that's exactly what Brain and Hollar think too.

This map shows EcoPRT connecting NCSU, the Cameron Village shopping center (the flat line in the middle) and a loop around downtown Raleigh. If the numbers are right, you're looking at a transit system connecting four of Raleigh's busiest destinations and plenty of parking -- for less than $20 million dollars total.

The presentation includes a series of slides showing how the system could expand organically. The idea is already garnering attention in the press and among developers. Brain and Hollar and now seeking seed money for a proof-of-concept installation on the NCSU campus. "The whole point is to put down the seed so people can buy into it," says Hollar. They hope to raise $2 million or so to develop a short line between a couple of NCSU campus spots so they won't have to deal with rights of way or power line issues and can work out the kinks.

"What's next is to get the vehicle," Brain says. "We're looking for an investor -- a philanthropist, a granting agency, the university, something." I hope they find it. I want to ride the first car.

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Hail and Farewell, Plugged-In Readers:

Those of you paying any attention to my work at all will have noticed my contribution to Plugged In has been quite weak in recent months. It's not because I don't care -- it's because for the moment I'm moving on to something else. Though I'm sorry to say that for a year or so I'll be taking a Plugged In hiatus, I'm thrilled to say that Scientific American Blog Network readers won't have to do without me: I'm just moving to the Expeditions section. As the Knight Science Journalism Project Fellow at MIT for 2014-2015 academic year,

I love cool stuff like this. Don't you?

I'm going to be retracing a marvelous journey of discovery through the Carolinas undertaken by one John Lawson in 1700-1701. The cleverly named Lawson Trek has its own website (and patches! and pins!) but will also have regular updates on this network on the Expeditions page. If this sentence doesn't link you to the first one, just go to the Scientific American Blog Network Expeditions page and you'll find it.

So I hope you'll keep in touch with me as I take my journey and tell you how the Carolinas have changed over the past 300 years, and I hope you keep my same desk in the back corner waiting for me when I come back to Plugged In. In any case, thanks for all your kind comments and see you soon, one place or the other.