February 4, 2009 As we’ve reported previously, the oil rich nation of the United Arab Emirates is leading the way in sustainable living research with the construction of Masdar City. The city is planned as the worlds first zero-carbon, zero-waste, car-free city and reflects the commitment by the government to accelerate the development and deployment of future energy. A key component of any city is its transportation system and as car makers around the world strive to make their vehicles cleaner and greener, the designers of Masdar City have decided to do away with cars altogether, instead opting for a light rail line that will bisect the city and personal rapid transit, (PRT), a system utilizing driverless “podcars”.

Masdar City is currently being constructed on a 2.5 square mile site 11 miles east-south-east of the United Arab Emirates’ capital Abu Dhabi, and will be home to 50,000 people with another 50,000 commuters working inside its walls. These commuters will be forced to leave their cars in one of the nine multi-story parking lots that will be built around the city walls and then use the city’s light rail and PRT system to reach their ultimate destination.

In an interview with TreeHugger, Luca Guala, a transportation planner with the firm that drew up the plans for Masdar's PRT system, has revealed some details about the ambitious system. The PRT “podcars”, which will move along rights of way approximately 6 meters under street level, will travel at speeds of approximately 7 meters per second and with the longest routes in the city being roughly 2.5 km long the longest trips in the city would be around 7 – 10 minutes long including waiting, travel and exit times. The battery-powered cars will operate within a kind of grid network and will take the shortest route to their destination.

Passengers will enter and exit the vehicles at stations and use a swipe card to access the system and enter their desired destination - such a system also offers the option of providing a list of destinations based on a person’s usual travel habits. The system will then notify the passenger when and on which platform the car, which can be identified by its number, will be arriving. Initially the system will be limited to only a couple of stations, but will become more sophisticated and will be able to drop passengers to within 100 meters of any destination.

Rush hour congestion in the city will be avoided with the computerized system able to see when the network is approaching capacity and not allowing any more cars to leave stations. This is not expected to be a frequent occurrence, but when it happens passengers will be asked to wait a few minutes. On normal workday mornings however it is expected that passengers will not have to wait any longer than 3 minutes.

Guala admits that because the PRT is a prototype it will be an expensive system, (seemingly not much of a concern for the Masdar City project), but that from an energy standpoint it will be extremely cost-efficient. While in peak hours it may not be as efficient as a system based on buses, during off peak hours it is much more efficient than running buses all night. This was an important factor in the planning of the system, as an “on demand” system that is a 24 hour service was needed.

Guala also points out that the PST system is much more suited to new developments like Masdar City where the system’s designers were able to work together with the town planners to plan the placement of roads and land uses to maximize the system’s effectiveness. While such a system may be difficult to implement in existing cities, the lessons to be learned in Masdar City could provide valuable knowledge for implementing the system in smaller towns and in contained, controlled environments, such as hospitals, universities and new business districts.

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