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MIJ: Transit solutions and Buck Rogers
Tuesday 11 Dec 2007, 07:45
Filed under: Railroad

Look like the Sky train isn’t quite ready. Will Marin ever agree to something that will get them out of their cars?

Staff Report
Article Launched: 12/10/2007 12:04:07 AM PST

MARIN GOT a glimpse of what could be the future of public transportation. Or not.

More than 50 people attended a presentation about Skytran, what is billed as “personal rapid transportation,” last week at the Marin Civic Center.

The top executives for Unimodal, a Southern California company, painted a glowing picture of how the elevated mass transit, with small vehicles that carry one to two passengers, will work far better at a far lower cost than current public transit.

Unimodal’s hosts were Marin Supervisors Charles McGlashan and Judy Arnold.

The Skytran concept is intriguing but untested; Unimodal doesn’t have a working prototype, which means its claims and cost projections need to be taken for what they are – optimistic, to be kind.

The vehicles would use magnetic levitation to “surf” on an elevated system that would be light enough to use standard utility poles with stops every quarter mile or so. Passengers would use stairs to reach the platform, get on a vehicle, tell it where they want to go and enter the fully automated network.

The presentation was entertaining, and attracted its share of movers and shakers and transportation advocates.

McGlashan and Arnold should be commended for having the courage
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to invite Unimodal to explain its futuristic Skytran concept.

McGlashan hit the nail on the head when he said in his introduction that such a system might be “pertinent” in 10 or 20 years, but that he feels it his responsibility to share what is out there.

He also said it is his job to worry about the present, which is why he is a strong supporter of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, the proposed passenger rail system.

Arnold is an opponent of SMART, but is willing to discuss such “Maglev” concepts.

McGlashan jokingly calls her the Buck Rogers of the Board of Supervisors.

SMART’s passenger system may not be as sexy as little personal pods gliding along rails in the sky, but it has the advantage of being real, if not perfect. Voters in Marin and Sonoma counties should keep that in mind when a quarter-cent sales tax to build a passenger rail system is back on the ballot next November.

Chris Perkins, Unimodal’s chief executive officer, described the automobile as the first generation of personal rapid transit (with apologies to the horse). He says an extensive Skytran network could be the next generation, with many of the features we find so addictive about cars: You just get in a vehicle and go where you want.

We wish Unimodal luck and hope it has a small prototype system up and running next year, which is the plan.

But Marin and the North Bay need to find more alternatives to cars now. We can’t wait 10 years – much less 20.

We need a transportation infrastructure that gives people multiple ways to get around. We must change the way we think about transportation, which is a cultural shift that will take decades. The longer we wait, the further we get behind. Environmental concerns should add to our sense of urgency.

Perhaps a system like SMART will turn out to be one of the things that buys us time until there is an advancement in transit technology – and changes in behavior – that reduce our reliance on the automobile. We also will need ferries and buses and more hybrid vehicles and more car-pools – along with visionary land-use planning.

Skytran is a fun dream. We need to dream, as individuals and as a society.

We also need to do something now. That was the real message last week.

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