Could ultra light rail technologies solve America's transport problems?

The ultra-light Vectorr in action. Image: Flight Rail Corp.

America is home to 320m people. By 2050, it will have added 80m more. With population rise will come a corresponding jump in car travel – and with that, traffic congestion, delay, wasted fuel and polluted air.

According to Federal Highway Administration figures, Americans logged a record 3.1 trillion miles behind the wheel in 2015. Without an effective mitigation strategy in place, the negative consequences of all this will worsen. In other word, the US’s business-as-usual development paradigm of unabated roadway building is unsustainable.

Some think that high speed rail could hold the solution. It’s only now beginning to win support in the US – but it won’t come cheap.

Take the cities of the north east corridor – stretching from Boston to Washington DC, via New York and Philadelphia. Joe Boardman, the president of the national rail agency Amtrak, contends that the 456-mile long, quasi-high-speed connecting this region could be rebuilt and upgraded to world class standards. Such an upgrade would draw increased patronage, taking traffic off the roads – but in 2012, its cost was estimated at $151bn.

On 6 January 2015, the nation’s first true high-speed train route formally broke ground in California, in the agriculturally bountiful San Joaquin Valley. The 800-mile network will one day connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, with eventual links to Sacramento and San Diego, too.

But the cost of the initial 520-mile backbone of the network is estimated to be a pricey $64b. These days, Uncle Sam seems to have neither the deep pockets for nor the inclination to want to invest in more endeavours like these.

Going ultra light

This is where less expensive but more advanced transit modes could fill the bill.

Take the proposed “CyberTran” system. It derives its name from conveyances – or “trans” – that can venture about autonomously, under the command and control of an onboard computer (hence the “cyber” reference). These, unlike traditional rail, would be dispatched on demand.

An artist's impression of the system in action. Image: CyberTran.

Such a system should be cheaper to run, which could help appeal to users. But at the moment it’s largely theoretical. As CyberTran chief executive Neil Sinclair admits: “For CyberTran to be credible to the first buyers requires that an operating system be demonstrated... Once a full scale system is demonstrated, the market will open up to UltraLight Rail Transit.”

A rival system involves the use of atmospheric propulsion. Flight Rail Corp.’s Vectorr system, invented by Max P. Schlienger, would use differential air pressure created by stationary power systems, to move cars along an elevated guideway. Unlike traditional rail, it can purportedly climb grades as steep as 10 percent, and is capable of operating at speeds over 200 mph.

Then there’s SkyTran, developed by a NASA spin-out company. Its own system would see distinctive tear-drop shaped pods would move around their network on a single overhead rail, propelled by magnetic levitation. This would be significantly cheaper to run than a traditional passenger railroad. In the words of Jerry Sanders, SkyTran’s chief executive:

 “At $14m per bidirectional kilometer, SkyTran’s capital cost is an order of magnitude (in most cases 20 times cheaper) than other rail systems... Furthermore, SkyTran uses electricity and does not rely on oil or unproven battery technologies that are difficult to scale.’”

The system should save on power, too. As executive vice president Christopher Perkins explains:

“Passive maglev requires no external power to levitate vehicles. Rather, the magnetic repulsion is produced by the movement of the vehicle over shorted wire coils in the track. Essentially, a linear motor that provides vehicle locomotion does double duty by inducing the levitation effect.”

An artist's impression of SkyTran in action. Image: SkyTran.

Presently, none of the three systems is up and running, though all three are working on pilot projects to demonstrate the technology.

These advanced transit offerings could revolutionise travel the way the train and motor vehicle did after they were first introduced. The key, though, will be getting the innovations beyond the drawings – to prove their efficiencies, and give people the opportunity to actually ride them.

But several important factors could help their causes along. Firstly, the price of gasoline will climb: when this happens, alternatives to conventional-mode travel and transport will begin to look ever more attractive. Secondly, as car travel miles grow, congestion will worsen – and advanced transit approaches could have a real chance.


That future may be closer than you think.

Alan Kandel is the author of the ebook, “The Departure Track: Railways of Tomorrow”. You can buy a copy here.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.