The Next Bold Step in Transportation: Personal Rapid Transit Systems

The Next Bold Step in Transportation: Personal Rapid Transit Systems


Throughout history, speed has been synonymous with greatness. In sports, those who ran the fastest were heroes. In times of war, those with the fastest chariots, ships, planes, and weapons had a significant advantage. In the business world, a company’s competitive edge has typically been formed around speed – quickest delivery, fastest transaction times, or speed of information.

With the aid of technology, we’ve found ways to speed up communications – voice, text, email, social networking, and even delivery systems. But we’ve only been able to achieve minor advances in the speed of physically traveling somewhere.

As we look closely at the advances over the past couple decades, it’s easy to see that we are on the precipices of a dramatic breakthrough in ultra high-speed transportation. Businesses are demanding it. People are demanding it. And the only things standing in our way are a few people capable of mustering the political will to make it happen.

The change we’re alluding to is the introduction of large scale Personal Rapid Transit Systems (PRTs).

So how do changes like this ramp up to a global scale? The same way they always have, with a few unreasonable people, proposing unreasonable concepts enough times until it stops sounding unreasonable.

Currently four thought leaders are leading the charge for PRTs, each proposing a different solution to the world’s growing transportation problems – Elon Musk, founder of Hyperloop; Jerry Sanders, CEO of Skytran; Bill James, CEO of Jpods; and Daryl Oster, CEO of ET3.

The following is an explanation of what’s driving the need for PRTs and why they’re the logical next step in human and cargo transport.

Illustrations of riding in ET3 capsules at 4,000 mph

The History of Speed

Society has been speeding up. If we look at where we’ve come from, there are two important trend lines to consider:

1.) Circumnavigating the Globe

It was less than 500 years ago when Magellan’s crew became the first to circumnavigate the globe, and it took them a little over 3 years to complete the journey. Magellan himself was killed in the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines, but his crew managed to complete the journey.

Since then, the time it’s taken to circumnavigate the world has shrunk dramatically. Here are a few of the records set along the way:

  • 1522 – Ferdinand Magellan – 3 Years
  • 1764 – John Byron – 2 Years
  • 1924 – US Air Service – 175 Days
  • 1929 – Hugo Eckener – 21 Days
  • 1931 – Wiley Post – 8 Days, 16 Hours
  • 1933 – Wiley Post – 7 Days, 19 Hours
  • 1949 – USAF B-50 Lucky Lady II – 94 Hours
  • 1961 – Yuri Gagarin – 1 Hour, 48 Minutes (First Russian Cosmonaut)
  • 1969 – Apollo 10 – 1 Hour – Astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan traveled at 24,790 mph (All-time human speed record)

Compressing the time it takes to travel around the earth from 3 years to 1 hour is indeed a huge accomplishment. But sadly, the all-time human speed record was set in 1969 and hasn’t improved since.

Elon Musk's Hyperloop

2.) Distance Traveled Over a Lifetime

If we assume the average person in 1850 walked 4 miles a day, same as the average travel speed of the day, over a 50-year lifespan, they would have covered 73,000 miles over the course of their lifetime.

Using the same assumption, that people travel an hour a day at the average transportation speed of that era, we can begin to get a picture of how mobility is changing how we live:

  • 1850 – Average speed 4 mph* – Traveling 4 miles per day X 50 year life expectancy = 73,000 miles.
  • 1900 – Average speed 8 mph* – Traveling 8 miles per day X 60 year life expectancy = 175,200 miles.
  • 1950 – Average speed 24 mph* – Traveling 24 miles per day X 70 year life expectancy = 613,200 miles.
  • 2000 – Average speed 75 mph* – Traveling 75 miles per day X 80 year life expectancy = 2,190,000 miles.
  • 2050 – Average speed 225-250 mph** – Traveling 225 miles per day X 90 year life expectancy = 7,391,250 miles.

* – Average speed based on Richard Florida’s calculations for the U.S. in his book titled “The Great Reset.”

** – Projection based on current trends.

Even though these numbers are rough estimates based on travel by people in the U.S., every country in the world has seen their mobility progressing along a similar growth curve.

To be sure, people who travel 7.4 million miles in their lifetime will have radically different ways of thinking about their life, their work, and future opportunities than someone who only traveled 73,000 miles.

If we follow this trend line, our average transportation speeds by 2050 should be between 225-250 mph. So how do we get there?

Yes, high-speed train systems can go faster than this, but just barely. Planes can also go faster but they top out at 550-600 mph. So what comes next?

Conceptual view of Jpods installation

Next-Gen Transportation – Four Key Innovators

People are traveling more but our airports are getting congested, our highways are overcrowded, and our oceans and skies are becoming far too polluted for more of the same.

Next-gen transportation will need to be far less dependent on internal combustion engines, traditional highways, and petroleum-based power systems.

For these reasons, the stage has been set for something bold and exciting to emerge.

To better understand how this is likely to unfold, let’s take a look at the four top innovators who are driving the conversation:

1.) Elon MuskHyperloop: While easily the best known of the group and certainly the most accomplished, serving as CEO for both Space X and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk has proposed a system he calls Hyperloop. The Hyperloop system is a concept for high-speed tube transportation where pressurized capsules ride on a cushion of air inside of reduced-pressure tubes, powered by a combination of linear induction motors and air compressors. Speeds of up to 760 mph may be possible with this approach. While initially conceived as larger scale vehicles with over 20 passengers, smaller PRT cars could still be added to the mix.

2.) Jerry Sanders, CEO of Skytran: Skytran is a personal rapid transit system that allows up to two passengers inside a well-spaced pod. The pods are accelerated via linear electric motors on an elevated maglev track. Because there are no moving parts, the pods can reach speeds of 165 mph. Skytran’s goal is to end traffic congestion around most major metropolitan areas. NASA Ames has built a Skytran test route and Skytran is building its own system in Tel-Aviv.

3.) Bill James, CEO of Jpods: JPods are also a personal rapid transit system able to move cargo and passengers at 35 mph on an elevated guide way that operates so efficiently that it could be powered by solar energy. While 35 mph may not seem fast, this becomes the last-mile component of the larger PRT ecosystem. Jpods has a letter of intent to build systems in both Linyi and Anshan, China as well as a project in Secaucus, NJ.

4.) Daryl Oster, CEO of ET3: ET3 (Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies) is a system where car sized capsules composed of high temperature superconductivity maglev materials that levitate on a permanent magnet track within the tube. The tubes are evacuated of air, with almost no air resistance, the capsules are accelerated via LEM. The Chinese have been researching and developing ET3 for 12 years. Three miles is needed for proof of concept. City to city networks via ET3 would allow 800lbs cargo/freight or up to 4 adult passengers, including luggage to travel 400-600 mph within local ETT-Evacuated Tube Transport networks. ETT networks would be able to connect with other local ETT networks while operating cross nationally around 1,000-4,000 mph.

Riding inside a SkyTran capsule

Understanding the Need for Personal Rapid Transit Systems (PRTs)

PRTs offer a new dimension in transportation. They operate above the fray, independent of the frenetic energy of today’s highways, airports, train, and bus depots.

Unbeknownst to most, early adoption of these technologies is already taking place. As niche markets get established, expansion will follow as the advantages of personal rapid transit systems become widely recognized.

One of the major advantages is that they’re built around automated systems, eliminating the human variable as well as the chaos factor that stems from it. Unlike planes, buses, and trains, they don’t require a schedule. This is on-demand mobility that, once completed, will take anyone, anywhere, anytime day or night.

As cities expand, so does the demand for personal mobility. PRTs are scalable by increasing line density, expandable by adding more lines, and connectable to existing systems.

PRTs will also force our current transportation infrastructure to evolve. As an example, driverless cars will offer many of the advantages of local PRT networks, but it will take several decades before human operated cars can be eliminated from roadways. A well-functioning PRT system can make that happen quicker.

This is similar to what happened in the early 20th century when Ford’s Model T transformed cars from being a luxury item to a ubiquitous staple of American life in less than 30 years.

During the first 5 years of PRT implementation, cities will become less dependent on the dirty and inefficient internal combustion engines to move city residents, tourists, cargo, and freight. Large cities will likely be the first to integrate PRTs and expand their networks into suburbia, allowing easy and fast access for commuters as well as city dwellers.

Unlike building new highways, where buying land, rights of way, and neighborhood buy-ins, metro PRTs only require poles that can be erected along existing roadways. They also operated without the noise and pollution of today’s roadways.

The first city-to-city connections will be linked via an ET3 or Hyperloop system, transporting cargo and passengers at 375 mph within a 100-mile radius.

Hyperloop station

Reinventing the Freight, Cargo, and Shipping Industries

Much of the freight shipped today comes in standardized containers. This has worked well when it comes to shipping copious amounts of cargo on trucks and trains across continents or on ship transporting goods across the Pacific and Atlantic. But it’s also slow, labor intensive, and mind-numbingly complex.

Much of this will begin to change with PRTs as well.

A city-to-city route within a 200-600 mile range with an ET3 or Hyperloop system will be able to ship things like food, merchandise, or even a couch at a fraction of the cost of truck or rail. Individual capsules can be modified to handle liquids as well, opening the door to shipping things like milk, oil, fertilizer, and more.

ET3 capsule staging area

Final Thoughts

Virtually everything on earth is synced to our ticking metronome of time, with those who can accomplish the most in a single 24-hour day gaining a significant advantage. Much of what we accomplish is tied to speed.

Within 10 years, your dreaded 7:00 am commute that takes 2 hours and half a tank of gas could be shortened to 20 minutes and virtually no gas.

As networks expand, the definition of a metro area will expand as people begin to routinely commute 500 - 1,000 miles each way for their jobs. A city like Milwaukee may be considered a suburb of Chicago as travel time is reduced. The entire Boston to Washington corridor could be massively linked into one large metro area.

High priced real estate will likely lose its ability to command their current exorbitant prices, as far less expensive communities suddenly become only minutes away.

Airlines will need to adapt to this new form of competition. As new routes get linked to the PRTs, traffic will begin to drop and schedules will have to be adjusted accordingly. Over time, airlines will become relegated to luxury class travel serving a far different clientele.

By 2035, PRTs will be crisscrossing most of the modernized world. Roadway bottlenecks will no longer be an issue and traffic will flow easily between North and South America, between Europe, Asia, and Africa, and even between North America and Asia by way of the Bering Strait.

Once ET3 is connected between the U.S. and China, the tube transportation system will have ultra high-speed vehicles operating at 4,000 mph, making the trip between Washington and Beijing in only 2 hours. This will indeed be the equivalent of space travel on earth.

However this entire journey begins with a few critical decisions that need to be made today.

By Futurist Thomas Frey and Colin Hicks (@hixcards on Twitter)

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything




14 Responses

  1. Well, I think all these would be wonderful, for all the reasons cited in the article. That said, the problem I see with a tube filled with people and cargo traveling at 4000 miles per hour is that of protecting it from terrorists. How long does it take to stop if you are traveling 4000 miles per hour? If a section of the tube is suddenly destroyed by a terrorist act, how many people would go shooting out of that tube to their instantaneous death, before the traffic in the tube would be brought to a stop?

    These are all great ideas, but it is necessary to consider things like this, and attempt to design necessary safeguards. In lockstep with the deployment of a new technology such as those described above, there needs to be the development of necessary security measures so that we can all enjoy the benefits with safety.

  2. Roy Reynolds

    PRT’s time has come and gone. I believe there was a narrow window open for it last decade, but only one system (built in the 1970s) has come close to succeeding.

    Only three newer systems have been built outside the US by three different vendors, but none of them have spawned larger investments in the technology.

    Driverless vehicle technology, with capacities similar to PRT’s but with grander growth potential, and not requiring dedicated infrastructure, will take PRT’s place. We’re not at all that far away from a driverless, on-demand taxi — exactly what PRT has promised — that uses existing roadways.

  3. David Thomas,

    “For every question there are 800 answers” – B. James
    Retired Army ranger

    It would take you 189 seconds to decrease from 4,000 mph to 0 mph at deceleration rate of 9.82 m/s2. Roughly 100 miles needed to decelerate a capsule from 4,000 mph to 0 mph.

    Safety protocols must be in place for cargo, freight and eventually passengers traveling via ETT (Evacuated Tube Transport). When a capsule is traveling in an evacuated tube at 4,000 mph, the curve radios is substantial due to centripetal force and will be required to be built underground through Canada, under the Bering Straight, through Russia and stopping in Beijing, a 2 hour trip.

    But that’s a generation away (25 yrs).

    The goal of PRTs is to allow people travel farther, safer, and cheaper than conventional transportation. Growing up in Chicago and suburbia, Amtrak is a 50-65 min commute (up too 2 hrs via car). Having Skytran in place, I would be able to get downtown in 20 min, plus it would be an interesting perspective operating at 165 mph in my own little pod (perhaps with a friend as well).

    Traveling in a capsule, through a tube would be relatively safe operating at 400-600 mph. Most of what would be traveling via ETT would be cargo/freight (25:1). Seatbelt’s would likely be required for passengers traveling via ETT, just like cars and airplanes (can’t remember if trains require seatbelt’s).

    Traveling from NY to LA in 2 hrs would be a thrilling experience, you would get to see 2 sunsets in one day. Safety in transportation has always been the primary objective. It took 1,000’s of years for Europeans to travel across the Atlantic. Titanic sank. Cars are responsible for 1,000’s of mortalities a year. It took 1,000’s of brave people to experience early commercial air flight before large adoption.

    Throughout history, an increase in transportation mobility has doubled the standard of living. Trains, planes and automobile’s have been the face of transportation for the past century. PRTs are viable solutions to increase transportation mobility. Having the opportunity to travel to any metropolitan area in the lower 48 within 2 hrs via PRTs is truly phenomenal. This kind of transportation mobility gets me exited; go see multiple sporting events in one day.

  4. I’m really tired of stop lights. The average American spends 2 weeks of their life waiting for them to turn green.

    Automated taxis are happening in large cities. But places across the globe have foggy cities due to air pollution. Getting from Chicago to Milwaukee would be a 40 min commute. The beauty of PRTs are they not dependent on a schedule (e.g. bus, train, airplane). You get to go where you want, when you want, and how you want. PRTs are reliant on automated systems, e.g telecommunications. Automated systems, like the ones for cars are incredible safe compared to the human variable (goolge cars, 300,000 miles of travel, no accidents).

    There are PRTs be adopted by numerous countries. What is so great, is that all the companies mentioned in this article are American.

  5. Great article and positive outlook on the future! A bigger problem than high speed travel is efficient urban transit. Modern PRT systems already in public service offer quicker travel and higher levels of service than, for example, light rail, by reducing travel and eliminating intermediate stops, while actually having lower top speeds. All this at reduced capital and operating costs. The next generation of light rail is already commercially available. It will get even better when higher speed systems reach the market. Learn more about PRT at

  6. Peter Muller,

    Remember me?

    Things are going well. Tube transport is competing against CA HSR; trying to get TIA on the CA ballot: 504,000 CA signatures.

    TIA will allow all the technologies mentioned in the article and others to built in CA.

  7. Karl Tenneb

    Hey folks have you heard about the greatest thing ever, it’s called Monorail!!….

    Miss Hoover:
    I hear those things are awfully loud.

    Lyle Lanley:
    It glides as softly as a cloud.

    Is there a chance the track could bend?

    Lyle Lanley:
    Not on your life, my Hindu friend.

    Barney Gumble:
    What about us brain-dead slobs?

    Lyle Lanley:
    You’ll be given cushy jobs.

    …. [The Simpsons Monorail song ]

  8. Lassiecomehome

    Sounds like a great achievement for business, but when you are taking a vacation,
    why rush the experience. A big part of a vacation is to observe all the wonders
    of the country in which you are traveling. Who will be able to afford this type of
    ultra-fast travel speed. I cannot believe that it will cost less than ordinary travel.
    Accidents are a possibility and at these speeds, the survival rate appears to be very
    low. It does seem like a good feature for transportation of goods between various
    key centers in the United States. If done correctly, we can reduce our pollution from
    trucks and trains. The only drawback that seems obvious is how do we protect these
    systems from terrorism, vandals and even the elements like storms with lightning?

  9. Bob

    Stafford, Young and Cernan DID NOT CIRCLE THE GLOBE IN 1 HOUR!!! That was their re-entry velocity on their return from the Moon. They did not enter Earth orbit on their return. It is physically impossible to orbit the at 24,790 miles per hours. Orbital velocity is approximately 17,600 mph. Any faster takes you to a higher orbit and then out of earth orbit.

  10. Icepilot

    Thought experiment – Build a train/loop/tube from NY to LA. Or build 2 airports & some planes. Then add Seattle to the system, 1k miles more tube or one airport. These massively expensive, complex, land destroying, maintenance nightmare Mass Transit systems will never happen. Thank goodness.
    The sensors, autopilot, engines, material fabrication and safety systems all exist for personal air transportation. We need the kind of innovation Elon Musk is providing to SpaceX to give everyone the freedom, lack of congestion and minimal impact of personal air transport.

  11. Adrian Spencer

    Great article. Great comments and feedback, Colin. Talk about creating jobs in the USA, building the future and taking the lead on something… I hate stop lights too, so I’ve recently changed my driving tactics. I stop at the stop light and if there is no traffic, I go. I treat the light like a stop sign. I would much rather be riding ET3, reading a book or having a conversation with friends or family than sitting in my car, burning gas, waiting in traffic. I can’t wait for the opportunities this will bring. Oh, by the way, David. I work in counter-terrorism and the likelihood of a terrorist accident happening are very low. You’re more likely to get hit by lightning. Great stats available at

  12. One unexpected side-effect…rationing access to National Parks. When I went to Yellowstone a few years ago, they mentioned they had terminated such things as swimming in the river and lake…not for safety or hygeine, but to reduce the number of people coming to the overcrowded park. With this revolution, you will be able to take day trips to YNP as far away as Denver, Seattle and Salt Lake City – five times the speed means twenty-five times the area.

  13. Looking for feedback from transportation professionals about the dual mode transportation system known as the BiModal Glideway. Please take a look and let us know what you think? Visit for a short video description! We are interested to know which system would be a better solution to our countries current transportation issues, the Hyperloop or BiModal Glideway?

  14. Have You heared about EUROASIAN RAIL SKYWAY SYSTEMS LTD, registered in UK ?
    They offer to become an investor (min.100£). The constructor’s Bureau in Minsk is ready and compleated, next step is an experimental area construction in Lithuania. Register for free and see the videos, it’s amazing!

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