A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 62

Day 62

Bus Rapid Transit

Today a few of our staff attended a meeting at Sherman Hospital in Elgin. The county arranged for the meeting to discuss bus rapid transit (BRT) along the Randall road corridor. It was a well attended discussion that lasted for most of the morning. A representative began the presentations by highlighting information about the new hospital. They have a 15-acre geothermal lake for heating/cooling that has saved them $1 million in operating costs annually. (You can read more cool facts about the lake here http://www.shermanhealth.com/geothermal_lake.php)

Next Kane county board chairman Karen McConnaughay summarized the county's work and vision for Randall road. Then Josh Ellis from the Metropolitan Planning Council  shared with us his organization's work with studying bus rapid transit in Chicago. Earlier this year they released the report:  Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago's New Route to Opportunity . His explanation of how they identified potential corridors was interesting and made sense. 

Next up was the consultant who has been studying the implementation of bus rapid transit along Randall road – a long transportation corridor that links many of the larger communities in Kane County. It's interesting to me as someone who just moved back into the area a few years ago to listen to these studies and recommendations, remember what the corridor used to look like 30 years ago, then hear the background story of how Randall road developed. Many, many years ago when I lived and worked for the city of Aurora, I used to occasionally drive along Randall road to visit parks and the fairground. So I remember the rural character of the road that existed before development broke loose out here. Having left the area about 1985, I never saw how the road expanded to a four-lane urban section with major big-box stores replicated along it from Aurora to Elgin. But I've been told there was great effort put into making sure the corridor was streamlined for the movement of cars to the point of designing out pedestrian access. These past efforts seemed to have worked – the road moves a tremendous number of cars on a daily basis. However, it most definitely is not conducive to moving peds/bikes. And unfortunately, all those stores and amenities are huge attractions for the large population living on the other side – particularly teens who can't drive (I know from personal experience with my own children). Over the last few years, attempts have been made to bring the pedestrian back into the mix by adding sidewalks and a bus route with stops. But the pedestrian infrastructure has a long way to go, and that doesn't help with navigating the long distances between shopping centers. So, to summarize, the current trend is to "undo" the "success" of initial, car-centric development efforts in the corridor.

After hearing from the county's consultant, we broke into groups to further discuss the feasibility of implementing BRT in the corridor. Everyone seemed to conclude that yes, it could work, but… I think the "but" shows the success of BRT will be dependent on the market, the understanding and acceptance by the city governments and the public, the funding, and the specific characteristics of each area along the corridor. One key change that will have to occur is for the corridor to change from a sprawling retail center to an area of high density, mixed-use developments. This is because BRTs are dependent on the presence of a large population in need of transit. So the question is, do people want this part of their community to transition to a densely populated area with a mix of other uses in order to improve movement of pedestrians along the corridor? It's hard to say.

Finally, the morning ended with planners from PACE demonstrating the current challenges of navigating the current bus system along Randall road. The problems include a lack of shelters, sidewalks, and navigation aids. Fortunately there are plans to install shelters and sidewalks next year so this will greatly improve the experience.

Overall, readers of my blog can probably figure out what was on my mind the whole time – PRTs! or personal rapid transit. With the cost of BRTs at $2.5 to $24 million per mile, it definitely should be cost effective to instead implement a PRT system, and it would be less intrusive to the corridor. There are other benefits over a BRT such as not having to wait for a bus or learn a schedule and not having to tolerate a packed bus with no where to sit or place bags, and I am not so sure a PRT would require the change to high density. But of course, this is what is so frustrating about being in the US – most people here want to hang onto old technology while other countries are already implementing newer and better solutions that we refuse to even acknowledge. What makes it even more frustrating in this situation is that we were not talking about putting in a BRT system today – this is our county's vision for 2040! By that time, every other country in the world will have a PRT system, and we'll just be cutting the ribbon on a new BRT system. Oh well, I embedded a video showing the new PRT system at Heathrow. Maybe by 2040, I'll be retired and can move to a place like England!


Downtown Plan

After lunch we had another meeting to finish reviewing our downtown plan. There are a lot of changes we've made to the draft so the consultant will have a lot of work to revise it. Of course, the focus of our department is more on the transportation sections, but it's still interesting to listen and learn about the zoning and economic development side of it all.

APWA Meeting

At the end of the day I met with a few members of our local chapter of APWA. We have all volunteered to help out at a workshop that APWA will host on November 10th to teach team building and problem solving skills. It was a good and fun discussion, and everyone came up with great ideas to integrate into the day. If you are in the Chicago area and are interested in attending, the link to the information is here: Team Building and Problem Solving Skills

One side discussion that came up at our meeting was the lack of engineers in the US compared to other countries. Although we didn’t get into a lot of theories of why this is, I have to wonder if it does have something to do with what I mentioned in the BRT paragraphs above – the US is behind other countries in investigating and implementing new technology. I realize this is not in every industry, and from what I can tell, our military is impressively cutting edge. But these pockets of innovation don’t get transferred to the lives of the general public.

One suggestion I had made at the BRT meeting was to take the discussion into the schools – after all if they are talking about something for the year 2040, it’s the people in school now who may well be weighing in on the fate of Randall road. Better to have them aware of it and thinking about it now. And maybe it might get some interested in pursuing a career in transportation. But few seem interested in doing this or in seeing the benefits of involving schools in what we do. So we end up with kids in school who see adults implementing the same old solutions, avoiding innovation, and leaving them out of the discussion. Why in the world would they be interested in engineering! However, I realize there’s also the chance that places like China have more engineers because they are making kids study engineering. My co-worker is from there, and she said she had no choice what to study or where to work – that was all decided for her by the government.

On a lighter note, I did discover one of the other volunteers also plays World of Warcraft which also started a whole other side conversation!


BRT, PRT, and Human Behavior


I've blogged for some time about the benefits of a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system because I believe there really are few other solutions that truly offer a comparable solution to the car. Unfortunately moving over to this type of system would take considerable time and funding so I'm not sure I'll see it in my life time. Some have been promoting Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as the solution to grid lock. And there has been a lot of discussion and money thrown at it. I do think researching and implementing BRT where it makes sense is a good idea, but we have to keep in mind it will not be the right solution for every location or situation. Nor will it be the cure-all a lot of people are hoping for. And it's because of basic human behavior – at least in the U.S. People here don't want to share their ride with a lot of other strangers unless the benefits of doing so outweigh the negative perception.So unless our government creates a law that makes it illegal to own a personal vehicle, a lot of people will still choose to drive their own personal vehicle rather than choose mass transit – particularly a bus.

Perhaps this story in Scientific American, Can Suburbs Be Designed to Do Away with the Car?, is a good example of this. According to the post, a community was built to promote walking and transit. For some reason, it appears transit was not installed prior to settlement of the city. And when the government moved in to place the transit, people fought it. They'd rather drive their car.

So if we really want to find a viable solution to grid lock and a replacement for the car, we have to understand and accept basic human behavior whether we agree with it or not. And we need to ask, why is it that people would rather drive their own vehicle and suffer through traffic jams than take mass transit? I think the answer will be it's because the average person really doesn't want to spend that much time on a regular basis in a crowded environment with strangers. I saw an example of this on the Metra line that runs through our community – they now have "quiet cars" where people are not allowed to talk at all. This is their solution to offering an environment that makes it easier for people to ignore each other.

Buses have an interior environment that is similar to that of rail, so a BRT solution that ignores improvements to the environment within will not encourage an increase in ridership. Yes, BRTs offer a more efficient operation for the bus operator, but is this enough of a benefit if ridership remains the same? Because PRT systems have a greater potential to serve a wider range of riders and also provide a more efficient operation and produce less pollution, I believe they are the better system. And with the proper planning and infrastructure, there would be little difference between a car and a PRT other than allowing the vehicle to drive itself. Most importantly, a PRT system seems to come closest to meeting the needs and behavior of humans.



Pod Travel – The Future of Transportation?

About five years ago, I was out on the jobsite watching the contractor and talking with the crew. We had removed the old pavement of a road and were building up a new base of stone so we could replace the asphalt. One of the laborers on the job said, "it's too bad people can't find some other way to get to their homes. Think of all the space we would have if we could remove all the roads." He went on to envision community gardens, trails, parks, and other uses for this newly reclaimed public space. It sounded great, but at the time, I just couldn't see how something like this could be accomplished. Then a couple years ago, I was visiting the virtual site of the United Nations Climate Change Conference and saw a 3D re-creation of the MISTER PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) system. At the time, I wrote a blog post about it, and since then, I have not been able to stop thinking about this pod-based mode of travel.


Last year when a local consultant had contacted our city about a study for building pedestrian/bike access along and across a very busy roadway, I mentioned, at the risk of having him question my sanity, the possibility of PRTs as an alternative. To his credit, he didn't laugh and spent some time checking into it. But he came back with the conclusion that it would not work.

Even so, I have continued to think about the implementation of pod-based travel. Taking this beyond just a public transit system, could we replace cars with PRTs? Could each of us have pods in our garages instead of cars, and when we want to go somewhere, we just hook to the rail? Could it all be computerized so we just put our children in our family pod, tell it which school to drop them off at, then program it to return home? Could this rail system be elevated so that we can fill in roads and reclaim the space as my friend, the laborer, had envisioned?

With increasing costs for roadway maintenance, gas and fuel issues, traffic fatalities, and all of our other transportation-related problems, the idea that we drive vehicles powered by fossil fuels when we have safer and cleaner technologies available seems archaic.

For those of you who are interested in learning more about PRTs, you can check out the following links:

MISTER Website

Open PRT Specification Project 


The Personal Rapid Transit Revolution

Virtual MISTER Podcar
Virtual MISTER Podcar

As the world searches for an answer to reducing the use of fossil fuels, cities are starting to look to the personal rapid transit (PRT) system as a potential solution. Lately, MISTER, a Polish-based company, has gained increasing notice for their innovative PRT system. MISTER is an acronym for Metropolitan Individual System of Transportation on an Elevated Rail. The design consists of a group of small, light-weight vehicles or cabins that travel on an overhead truss rail and have externally powered electric motors integrated into the vehicle carriage assembly.

The MISTER system is reported to have an advantage over competitors because of the use of the light overhead truss system while other PRTs rely on guide rails and track systems. The overhead guide allows cars to climb at 45-degree angles while keeping the floor of the vehicle level. The steep inclines also reduce the area required on the ground for stops

The system is designed to carry up to 5 passengers who enter a PRT vehicle at designated stops and select their destination using an onboard computer. This programmed stop can also be changed during the trip by the passengers. Opole, a city in Poland, has allocated land for a test track for the MISTER system and is in the process of planning routes throughout the city.

MISTER is only one of many PRT systems in development. More information about PRT systems and other alternative transportation technologies can be found at the Innovative Transportation Technologies site hosted by the University of Washington.

For those interested in viewing and trying out a virtual, 3D representation of the MISTER system, you can visit the Second Life site of the UN Climate Change Conference by clicking here. (You will need a free Second Life account and avatar available at the Second Life Website.)