Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tomorrowland never dies: A clever rapid transit system sees life in Tel Aviv

A skyTran demo track will be installed in Tel Aviv, Israel during the next year, and a larger commercial installation is scheduled for 2016. If this system works well, will put every other city's mass transit options to shame.

The skyTran concept should be easy to grasp if you've been to Disneyland, specifically Tomorrowland:
  1. Start with the monorail and split it into small autonomous cars seating two people (like the now-defunct PeopleMover, if you remember it).
  2. Flip it upside down, hanging from the track rather than on top of it, so less can go wrong (a hint of SkyWay, now).
  3. Modernize the design: aerodynamic shape, a maglev track, and sensors to guide and space the cars and allow them to brake quickly if there's a problem ahead.
The cars are shunted off from the main track to allow passengers to get on or off without interrupting the flow of traffic  — like a freeway or express train. The tight spacing, automatic routing, and lack of stops along the way allow the system to carry large numbers of people to their destinations much more efficiently than a standard highway or even a train.

* * *

I found Doug Malewicki's website for skyTran in late 2005, fresh out of college. The idea looked solid and I was enthusiastic about it, but the website didn't do justice to the engineering team behind it. I volunteered to revamp the website, and met with Doug a couple of times to go over ideas. I put together a simple static site as a demo, and after much exertion, got the CSS to look all right in both Firefox and IE (because that's what people used at the time, grandkids) on a variety of screen sizes and default font sizes. But for our next meeting, Doug printed out the webpages, and — due to some combination of hardware and software that I will never know — the fonts tripled in size and the layout turned to garbage. Doug was displeased, I was helpless. In conclusion, I don't have what it takes to do front-end web development. It was probably this experience more than any other single event that motivated me to go to grad school.

Anyway, I'm delighted to see that skyTran is still moving forward.

When I first saw the skyTran design in 2005, smartphones were not popular yet, so instead of using a smartphone app to summon a car and pay for it, passengers would carry a keychain-sized RFID dongle for payment (e.g. FasTrak), and simply queue up at a raised platform to catch a car. The design I saw also indicated a maximum speed of 150 mph, making it suitable for most medium-distance travel in a metro area, and probably competitive with California's long-delayed high-speed rail, but not as fast as airlines for long-distance travel.

Obviously, this would be great in a spread-out US city like Los Angeles or San Jose, but implementing it would be politically impossible. At the time Doug told me about it, he said he was going to pursue privately funded initiatives, and he had a team in Seattle building a proper prototype. I thought a good candidate to try the technology would be a city-state like Singapore, with a strong centralized authority and a keen interest in efficient, scalable civic development. It seems Tel Aviv has the same will and ability to develop new infrastructure. So, is there any good reason California can't do the same?