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Conference promotes podcars for personal rapid transit

Could Ithaca become a podcar city? Or Cornell a podcar campus?

An ad hoc group called Connect Ithaca is working to create a "personal rapid transit" (PRT) system that would move people quickly and efficiently enough to convince them to leave their cars at home, reducing pollution and energy use. It's already a worldwide movement, and PRT enthusiasts from as near as EcoVillage on West Hill and as far away as Sweden and Brazil converged on Statler Hall, Sept. 14-16, for the Second Annual Sustainable Transportation Conference. (The first was held in Sweden.)

Podcars are small vehicles, usually seating four people, that travel on overhead guideways above streets and sidewalks. Think of a cross between a monorail and a taxi. Passenger stations are frequent. If there isn't a car waiting at a station you push a button and one shows up in a minute or two. You punch in your destination and swipe a card -- just like on TCAT -- and off it goes, powered by electricity that hopefully comes from some renewable source. One proposed design has the podcars hanging under a guideway that has solar panels on top.

Prototype PRT systems are being built at London's Heathrow Airport and in Upsala, Sweden (another college town), and several are in planning stages in various European cities. Speakers at the conference called podcars "the first real change in transportation since the introduction of the automobile 100 years ago," and seemed to agree that Ithaca would be an ideal location for a PRT system. Attendees included a number of vendors eager to build such systems.

According to Frost Travis, founding member of Connect Ithaca, there will be zoning and regulatory hurdles to overcome. Right now, he said, there just isn't any regulatory structure in place for such a system. Approval of a new transportation system in California typically takes up to 12 years, he noted, but he suggested that the time can be shortened here by educating public officials and other stakeholders. Connect Ithaca has applied for a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to conduct a feasibility study for an Ithaca system.

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