Early 1990s proposal for Personal Rapid Transit in the Chicago suburbs

Officials are still trying to develop effective mass transit in the Chicago suburbs but perhaps they missed something: an early 1990s proposal for Personal Rapid Transport from several suburbs.

I came across a 1991 “Proposal for a Personal Rapid Transit Demonstration System” from the Village of Rosemont. Envision, if you will, a network of autonomous, futuristic five-person pods zipping through the glassy canyon of corporate headquarters near O’Hare, alighting at their passengers’ chosen destination…

It wasn’t the only avant-garde transportation idea that the RTA was considering at the time “in an effort to coax drivers, particularly in the suburbs, out of their cars.” In June of 1992, as the competition to get PRT continued, the agency was also investigating SERCs, or “stackable electric rental cars,” approximately the size of a Honda Accord, with a range of 28 miles and a top speed of 50-60 miles an hour. The system would allow workers to take the Metra to a SERC station, drive the last few miles to the office or home, and return it by the next day—sort of like bike-share for tiny electric cars. It doesn’t seem to have gone beyond a symposium on the technology.

But the PRT plan got serious. Rosemont retained Winston & Strawn—around the same time the RTA hired them for lobbying work—at a cost of $50,000. They spent another $50,000 to prepare for the application. The mayor told the Tribune in May of 1991 that they were prepared to spend another $100,000 to get the RTA experiment. And Rosemont got the nod, though it took two years.

In 1998, eight years after and $22.5 million dollars after the RTA set it in motion, Rosemont’s PRT system came to life. It came to life on a test track at Raytheon in Massachusetts, but nonetheless, it existed, in RTA-emblazoned glory. RTA officials were pleased.

Moser suggests the plan was killed by two main factors: cost overruns and then Raytheon got out of this particular business. But, I just don’t see how this would have been attractive to average suburbanites. Monorail like lines would have to be constructed to connect major buildings and nodes; how many want to live around those (even with little noise)? It still requires a certain level of density in order to have consistent ridership. This might work great along office corridors – which the suburbs in on this proposal, Rosemont, Naperville, Deerfield, and Schaumburg, all have – where there are thousands of workers on a regular basis. The primary advantage is that people don’t have to ride with many others, something that wealthier commuters seem to like and would pay to get. But, in the end, this seems like a more private form of train/monorail/bus linking higher density areas.

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