The future of personal transportation?

I’ve just got back from a long weekend in Barcelona and have to admit that one of the highlights (apart from sunshine, tapas and stunning Gaudi architecture) was riding the Heathrow Pod.

Really, I hear you say? You flew half way across Europe and the best part was the vehicle that took you to the airport terminal? Well yes, sort of. Even non-geek Mrs W. was impressed as we sped from business parking towards Terminal 5 in our own personal vehicle, with almost no waiting time but still in complete privacy (like a car, not like a bus or a train). Meanwhile I was acting pretty much as one of my young sons would be when faced with a new and exciting means of transport (I may be 40 in a couple of weeks’ time, but there’s still a part of me that’s more like a 7 year-old boy…).

For those who haven’t seen the pod (officially known as ULTra), it’s basically a personal transportation system, running on a dedicated “road” system where computer-controlled vehicles run on one of a number of pre-set routes.  I saw something similar last year on a Channel 4 programme called Brave New World, looking at a sub-surface system in Abu Dhabi’s smart city, Masdar and I think systems like this have a lot of potential.

Our roads are clogged with cars – and yet we still like to use them because they are convenient; they take us from where we like, to where we like, when we like (i.e.not on a schedule). That’s not the whole picture though: some of us like to express individuality through our choice of cars; some of us just like driving; and sometimes there really is no alternative (if I want to get from home, to the station and into London before 9am, there is no public transport option – and I’m only about 60 miles from London – imagine what it’s like for people in really rural areas). But why couldn’t personal transportation devices on special lanes replace buses, taxis, and private cars in metropolitan areas?

Yesterday’s news is all about how private companies will be allowed to build new road infrastructure in the UK (nothing new – we’ve had the M6 Toll for years now) but how about if a company were to invest in a system that would remove  cars and buses from the road within a metropolitan area – a pod-style system on a town-level, for example?  It can’t scale outside urban areas, but we already have decent motorways (or we would have if more long-distance freight went by rail) and a personal rapid transit system could be used from certain transport hubs (integrating with major transport routes, regional and long distance coach and rail travel) to take us the “last mile” (or 3 or 4). That way we don’t have to give up our flexibility, people can still choose to drive for longer distances (or when they are outside major urban conurbations) but we can do something about our congested city centre streets…

…or maybe it’s the Gaudi influence and I’m just thinking a little too far outside the box?

[Updated 21 March 2012: Added video]

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