Posted by: glennandert | 27-October-2009

‘Mass Transit’ that works – what would it look like?

I assume a lot of us care about global warming. And I assume we all see that the automobile is a major contributor to the problem.

I’m lucky to be living where I do in Wellington. On most days I can get wherever I want to go by just putting on my shoes and walking there. That’s awesome. I prefer the walk, even when the whether is miserable. When I have to use the car, the traffic is frustrating. And I hate driving around in circles looking for a parking spot in the city. Those moments keep sending me off to thinking about the ‘mass transit’ problem.

I’m going to write a series of posts on ‘mass transit’. Along the way I hope to shed some light on why today’s mass transit doesn’t work, what it needs to look like, and how we might get there. 

Do you actually enjoy sitting by yourself in traffic for 45 minutes to get to work? No. Then why do you do it? Because there is no effective alternative. An alternative has to meet these requirements:

Requirement #1: It’s faster than using your car

You’re busy. There’s more to do than ever. Work takes up more time than ever. If you’ve still got your job, you’re doing your work plus that of your comrades that were made ‘redundant’. If you lost your job, you might be doing multiple part-time jobs now in order to pay the mortgage and keep food on the table. You’re both working now. Yet somebody still has to go to the grocery store, get the cars serviced, take Johnny to sports, etc.

You’ll never use a form of transportation other than your own car unless you’re going to get there faster. That’s right, faster. Let’s face it, it’s going to take a lot to get you out of your car.

Let’s evaluate current alternatives in light of this requirement.

How about taking the bus to work? How do you get from home to the bus? Let’s call that a 5 minute walk.  If the bus comes on average every 15 minutes, there is about 7.5 minutes of queueing delay. Buses try, but rarely arrive on time. Not to mention that buses stop all the time, and therefore travel slower. Let’s be kind and call it 30 minutes extra every day to take the bus. Will you do it? Highly unlikely. You won’t do it even if it’s only 1 minute slower. 

How about walking or riding your bike? That’s takes even more time. Subways are mostly like buses, so we’ll lump then into that category. And trains typically have even bigger queueing delays.

How about car pooling? You’d think that car pool lanes would work – after all, once you’re a car pool, you get to travel in a lane that is less congested than the others. But, there are still queueing delays. The driver has to get from his house to yours in the morning – most likely an extra distance. And then he has to wait for you to be ready, or you have to wait for him to arrive. How long is that? Another 7 minutes? It’s starting to look a lot like the 30 extra minutes, again. Will the increased speed in the car pool lane make up for an extra 30 minutes? Maybe. But probably not.

Requirement #2: It goes anywhere anytime, and at your command

You’re life is chaotic. There are no noodles for tonight’s spaghetti, and no milk for tomorrow’s breakfast. So, you need to stop at the grocery store on the way home. Or, your wife Mary called and while it’s normally her night to pick up Johnny from sport, she has a late meeting that she can’t get out of – so can you please do it. This is a nightmare on a bus or a train. And if you car pool, now your commute partner becomes your chauffeur. This is one of the main reasons you stay in your own car – your car takes you where you need to go, and you have the keys.

Requirement #3: It gives you the privacy you want

You’d enjoy having friends you chose accompany you on your drive to work. But on a bus you have to sit next to somebody you’ve never met before, and who won’t look at you. And on the subway ride home you’re staring at an armpit that smells like it hasn’t seen a shower for a week.

Requirement #4: It’s at least as comfy as your private car

In your car, you can set the music, control the temperature, adjust the seat, etc. You’re in control and you can adjust it the way you want. What would it take for you to trade in the comfort of your own car for the opportunity to stand in a hot sweaty bus next to those armpits that haven’t bathed for a week?

And what about the groceries, or all the baby stuff? How do you handle that on a bus?

Requirement #5: Safety safety safety

You drive a big secure SUV. In a crash, you win. No weird looking or smelling people around. No foul language. You’re not worried about your purse. And you’re not worried about who’s going to say or do what to your kids.

Requirement #6: Fun

A lot of time you’re car isn’t fun. Like when you’re stuck in traffic. Or when it breaks down on the very morning when you are already late for a meeting with a major customer. But, it sure was fun when you drove it off the new car lot. And it sure is fun when you take it for a drive to the beach, or take your girl out on Friday night.


Let’s face it, mass transit as we know it isn’t going to have a significant impact on private use of the automobile, no matter how many billions you spend on it, no matter how expensive you make fuel, and no matter how high you pile guilt on the consumer.

Come back for our next edition where we explore an effective alternative.



  1. You aim at the right direction. Yet it is a long journey.

  2. You forgot motorcycles. Much faster and a heck of a lot more fun.

  3. I used to ride. You’re right, it is a lot more fun! Check out the “yike bike” at I’d love to give that thing a try.

  4. Dear Glenn
    As a fan of Mass Personal Transit that works, I was very appreciative of your posts, which are very thoughtful and full of good humour.
    Fortunately, help seems to be much closer than you may think.
    Please read Prof.J.Ed.Anderson recent report on Personal Rapid Transit, “An Intelligent Transportation Network System”, out last month (
    This summarizes many years of pioneering the future ways of urban transit.
    I hope all yours requirements will be fully answered, and then, some more.
    Join the wave.

  5. Thanks Glenn for a great post.

    Also, thanks to Luis for the link to which helped to answer the question of how PRT can co-exist with the current transportation systems.

    From New Zealand point of view, I would like to see development of an “All Terrain Pod” that can be utilized for general farm duties. i.e. If I was the farmer, by using my GIS system, I must be able to identify a herd of sheep in a far remote location on my farm and send an ATPoD with couple of sheep dogs to muster-in & bring the sheep back to a base station.

    A well designed ATPod can provide massive productivity improvements to pastoral, horticultural & forestry industries around the world.

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