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Zip, Zip, Hooray! : Supporters of a personal rapid transit system are rejoicing this week after the Santa Cruz City Council put out the call for proposals.

Unpaved New World

The Santa Cruz City Council takes the first tentative steps toward a future of pod-like rapid transit cars. Insanity or foresight? Stay tuned...

By Steve Hahn

Anew form of transportation could find a welcome home in Santa Cruz and help lubricate the city's growing tourism industry. At least that's the message soon-to-be-termed-out Councilmember Ed Porter has been championing over the past few years as he lobbies tirelessly to bring a personal rapid transit (PRT) system to the downtown and beach areas of Santa Cruz. Last week, the City Council took a big step toward making Porter's futuristic vision a reality when it approved his motion to release a request for design proposals from PRT developers. Bring on the portraits of sleek buildings and Pod People!

PRT is a lot like the light-rail system employed by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), except that it would be on a smaller scale, with each car holding only three or four people and all the travel happening on "guideways" within a few city blocks. It would also be completely controlled by computers, a measure intended to eliminate the possibility of PRT fender-benders.

Once the proposals are received, experts will analyze the designs and bring their recommendations on how to proceed back to the council. At that point the council could call the thing off as a bit too experimental--there are no PRT systems in North America, although they do exist in other countries--or they could start the process of picking the best designs. Porter clearly favors the latter.

"It will be good for future councils to have a process in place because at some point a decision will have to be made," proclaims Porter. "Do we want to pursue this further or do we want to wait until Huntington Beach wants to do this? I mean, they are our arch-rivals--we definitely should come in front of them."

All joking aside, Porter thinks locating a PRT system in Santa Cruz could be a boon to tourism.

"Just think, we'd have something that really puts us on the map," Porter says emphatically. "It's something I call engineering tourism, and we'd get tons of it."

Porter also thinks the system could help relieve the traffic congestion sure to follow the building boom of new hotels being proposed down by the beach.

"Imagine if all those people weren't stuck in traffic jams and instead could go anywhere in the downtown in four minutes," says Porter. "That changes everything for this as a tourist and conference destination. I don't think we can do a conference center without something like this."

The fact that the cars and guideways could potentially be solar-powered makes this an even more attractive proposal as the city struggles with its twin goals of expanding commercial activity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Porter argues.

"Everyone is yearning to find a solution to consuming hydrocarbons and pouring them into the atmosphere, and all of a sudden here is a solid answer that gets at a substantial chunk of our greenhouse gas emissions," says Porter. "This is an awfully smart enterprise for the city."

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