Can a network of levitating pods change how urban India travels?
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Photo Credit: PR/ SkyTran

This personalized rapid transit system aims to change the face of public transport around the world.

SkyTran, a personalized rapid transit system (PRT), recently got the go-ahead from Google chairman Eric Schmidt. He invested an undisclosed amount in the NASA-partnered startup through his fund, Innovation Endeavors.

SkyTran implements a network of computer controlled, levitating vehicles that operate above a magnetic strip in order to transport passengers through surface traffic. It hopes to change the face of public transport across the world. The first public experiment is being built in Tel Aviv, Israel and SkyTran plans to expand to ten countries including the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

SkyTran in India

In the following video, SkyTran CEO Jerry Sanders describes the possibility of the entrance of the PTR into India.

Ankur Bhatnagar, Vice President of SkyTran India, today said he expects the personal rapid transit system to be operational in parts of the country within the next 2 years. He believes India will be SkyTran’s biggest market. SkyTran is currently in negotiations with the Indian government and plans on introducing the service in parts of Jaipur, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Kerala.

According to Bhavnagar, if SkyTran was implemented in Delhi, it would significantly ease existing pressure on public transport infrastructure. The current commute between Gurgaon and Noida, two major hubs in Delhi, would decrease from 90 minutes to less than 25. The pre-booked pods would use magnetic levitation to travel on personalized routes and traffic would be separated into small vehicles. Passengers would use a numerical system to indicate their desired destination upon entering a pod.

PRT has been tried before in India

This is not the first time that India has been interested in establishing a personalized transit system. In 2011, ULTra Fairwood got a contract to develop India’s first pod transport system in Amritsar. ULTra’s PRT system has already successfully completed its millionth mile at the London Heathrow Airport.

ULTra planned to carry up to 100,000 passengers daily and hoped to be the largest PRT network in history. Fares would be comparable to local taxi and auto rickshaw prices (INR 40-50 or $0.60-.75 a seat) and would run between airports, train stations, and Amritsar’s heavily-trafficked Golden Temple. A single pod would have the ability to carry four passengers, each with luggage in tow. Travel times would be cut by 30 minutes and the zero emission vehicles would use a third of the energy that a car would.

However, the plan was scrapped for multiple reasons. Historians and cultural enthusiasts explained that it would spoil the look of the ancient city and block views of Amritsar’s famous sites like the Golden Temple. Shopkeepers that worked in the midst of the route complained they would have to relocate and, as the Amritsar government explained, it was difficult to find a reliable company to carry out the construction.

A large criticism of the PRT system was that the frequency and limited capacity of the pods would not be able to match the pace of India’s transportation and traffic.

Large scale transportation systems are a necessity

The popularity of other major projects have proven the necessity of efficient transportation systems in India.

A prime example of this is Delhi’s expansive metro system. The subway has 139 stations sprawled across the city and is reported to move 2.5 million customers every day. Its riders voted it the second-best metro system in the world and became the second transportation system globally to get a certification of environmentally friendly construction. It has reduced greenhouse gas emission by 630,000 tons every year and includes thoughtful features like “women only” cars.

The Delhi Metro cost over $1.5 billion to construct. It currently spans a length of 194 kilometers (121 miles).

In comparison, however, SkyTran claims that the construction cost of a similar project would cost half of that of the Delhi Metro for over 500 kilometers (310 miles) of railing. The pods would not pollute the environment.

There is a third phase in construction that is planned to be completed by 2016. However, according to Mangu Singh, managing director of the Delhi Metro, there remain a few major challenges. Land ownership, as he explained, is a complicated thing. In the past, metro construction has had to push existing families out of their homes. The PRT system, on the other hand, operates largely above ground.

Smart cities need smart transportation

India is reported to have 13 of the world’s 25 most-polluted cities and its urban population is expected to rise to 590 million people by 2026. Clearly, this means significant upgrades to existing infrastructure is necessary. The Indian government’s “smart cities” project is one mooted solution. This project aims to equip 100 cities with the well planned, efficient infrastructure necessary to accommodate the country’s rising urban population.

Although the goals of the project are vague, the eventual mission is to improve the lives of Indian citizens in a multitude of ways, including improved transportation, access to affordable energy, and the provision of stable infrastructure. The government has invested $15 billion in the project and expects to see more money from private investors.

There has been plenty of criticism surrounding the “smart cities” project. Many believe it has not been well thought out and that the cities will soon become places only affordable for the rich. Some have gone so far as to claim it is a mish mosh of “every urban development project” in existence. With no tangible decisions around important aspects of urban development, the vision of a smart city remains vague.

The entry of a personalized rapid transit system into India introduces many new possibilities. With its affordable construction costs, low fares for passengers and environmentally friendly technology, it is the first step toward creating a transportation system that can fit with India’s ideal vision of a smart city.

This post was originally published on Tech in Asia.

Featured Image Credit: PR/ SkyTran

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Meghna Rao

About Meghna Rao

Born in New York and working in India, Meghna loves innovation, writing and different types of okra-based dishes. She also suffers from an irrational fear of writing too much about herself online. “What if something changes?,” she asks. “I can’t have the Internet documenting my every move.”

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