The DI can’t get anything right?

A few months ago, after learning that Bill Gates was giving money to the Cascadia branch of the Discovery Institute (which studies transportation issues in the Pacific Northwest), I wondered if the DI was as incompetent and delusional about transportation as evolution. Here’s one answer—not surprisingly, they may again be tools of interests opposed to real advances. I am not by any means an informed expert on these issues, but I do know the Seattle area desperately needs better mass transit—I have seen rush hour on I5, and do not know how people can stand it—yet what the DI offers is a distracting welter of speculative and untried ideas that seem calculated more to muddy the waters and preserve the profitably wasteful status quo than anything else.

A typical right-wing think-tank, in other words.


  1. Scott Simmons says

    I dunno. As someone who really knows nothing about mass-transit theory, I find after reading that little screed that: I still know nothing about mass-transit theory. Other than that someone I know nothing about doesn’t like the PRT idea, whatever that is, but the Discovery Institute does. Not very illuminating, that.

  2. says

    Yeah, I’m kind of lost in that swamp, too. All I know is that I’ve lived in cities with subways and light rail, and they work; I haven’t seen any of the flashy new systems succeed. I’ve lived in Seattle, and the monorail was always more of a gimmick than a good way to get around.

  3. says

    Oh, and PRTs are personal rapid transit systems: small, low capacity vehicles that pop onto fixed rail lines to get you to where you are going. I’ve seen them described, and honestly, they seem like a goofy and impractical way to get people around. They aren’t really a mass transit system at all, more of a way to give people their own personal rail car.

  4. Steviepinhead says

    Way off-topic, PZ, but the link to the Taste of Pharyngula article on Hox Cluster Disintegration doesn’t seem to, um, go there…

    Then again, the “old” monorail didn’t really go much of anywhere useful either (though the “new” one–now sabotaged by downtown developers and their cohorts, possibly including such as the DI–would actually have linked neighborhoods and business districts along the city’s west side).

    New I could find a tie-in if I thought about it!

  5. m justice says

    Actually, as a Seattleite with classmates who have worked on mass-transit related projects, I’ve heard that the DI’s mass transit wing is actually somewhat respected, and known for purposefully distancing themselves from the creationists. In short, they’re all conservative, but some are ‘rational’ conservative and some are, well… you know.

  6. bmurray says

    As far as I can tell, Seattlites don’t want improved mass transit. They did, after all, just vote against one based on proven automated technology. I guess they like the cozy herd-like feeling on the I5.

  7. MJ Memphis says

    I was a little embarrassed to find that the mass transit in Bangkok beats anything in the states. Subway *and* skytrain, plus good and very cheap buses, and passenger ferries- all of them very heavily used. Sadly, here in Memphis we have a substandard bus system and a trolley that goes… well, not to much of anywhere.

  8. Don Culberson says

    Discovery Institute?….Mass Transit issues? uh, uh, uh.. I’m so confused. It would never occur to me to spend more than 0.3 secs reading the title of an article on Mass Transit in Seattle (we don’t cotton to none of that thar socialist stuff down here in AllerBammer!) but I guess I will have to read it now… I thought I was getting a handle on the DI, but… Mass Transit? Well.. anything the the DI would have to contribute to designing mass transit would likely go a long way to shooting down any hopes anyone may have secretly harbored about “Intelligent Design”.

  9. Nick says

    What is up with crappy public transportation planning these days? Here in North Carolina, light rail to connect Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill has been on the drawing board for years. Last I heard, the rail line wasn’t going to go through the airport, because that would be, you know, useful or something. Then Duke raised a stink about having a station too close to the Medical Center — maybe it would block the scenic vista of carparks visible from the hospital windows.

    One might almost suspect a deliberate attempt to prove that public transporation isn’t as convenient as a zillion SUVs jammed on I-40.

  10. Don Culberson says

    OK I read it. Personal Rapid Transit. We have that here in AllerBammer. We call it “cars”, I think. Well, pickups and motorcycles, too. They don’t travel on rails, but other than that… Just one question. Do they have gun racks? Leave it to the DI. My head hurts. I liked the DI better when they were just goofy about evolution.

  11. says

    Nick, I feel for you. Here in Minnesota, we’ve lucked out — we got our first LRT line built, and not only has it greatly exceeded ridership expectations, but the business along the route love it.

    Families use it to come to down Minneapolis on the weekends: Unless you have a HUGE family, transit tickets are still cheaper than parking. And several restaurants have noticed an uptick in family clientele, even the “sports bar/meat market” types such as Old Chicago (the OC nearest the Warehouse District stop has invested in crayons and high chairs to cater to its new clientele). And since it goes to the Mall of America via the airport, it’s very handy for travelers wanting to get to a hotel or to just kill some time before their next flight.

  12. says

    Personal Rapid Transit is absolutely a tool of anti-mass transit interests.

    This tinfoil-hat “technology” is older technology than light rail, has never had one success anywhere, and does nothing but derail funding and research from real mass transit options. The PRT folks here in Minneapolis basically get together in diminishing numbers and bitch about how Metro Transit deliberately “underestimated” the projected numbers of LRT riders, in order to “manufacture” a success. Considering that the LRT is mostly packed all the time now, I guess the “underestimate” meant people not pressed against the windows.

  13. G. Tingey says

    For effective mass transit try…
    Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin, and I suppose, London, though our idiot government are doing their best to bugger up the last…..

  14. says

    I like the STM here in Montreal, despite it screwing up repeatedly. For instance, the Metro (subway) for some reason always seems to slow down on really snowy or rainy days, even accounting for higher ridership. I’ve never understood this, since it is always enclosed at every point on its route. (This itself is a great problem for expansion, since the kind of cars used actually can’t go outside.) It also doesn’t go everywhere it probably should, but bus service is pretty comprehensive if too slow sometimes.

  15. Ginger Yellow says

    “Oh, and PRTs are personal rapid transit systems: small, low capacity vehicles that pop onto fixed rail lines to get you to where you are going.”

    These guys really, really don’t like having to sit next to strangers, do they? What possible transit needs could such a system serve (anywhere near) as efficiently as a light rail/tram system?

  16. matt says

    I’m not so sure I’m opposed to PRT. I live in Atlanta where we’re “blessed” with the MARTA rail system. I’ve been on many rail systems in quite a few countries, and I can tell you that the Marta trains are larger, smoother and quieter than almost all the others. The problem, though, and you hear Atlantans saying this all the time, is that it doesn’t “go anywhere.” By that we mean it’s a North-South and East-West line and other than the Airport, the stations just don’t seem to be where you would want them to be. So it’s a net drain on our economy since it’s heavily subsidized. I’d welcome a PRT system in the area. There are right-of-ways available that would lead into areas people frequent. My only concern would be that it should be undertaken by a private company, for profit, with no government giveaways. That would minimize financial risk to the taxpayer and subject the operators to the rigors of having to deliver good service (or go bust!).

  17. Bayesian Bouffant, FCD says

    1) The linked commentary got your name wrong.

    2) If the contribution of the Discovery Institute to the transit situation in Seattle isn’t worth $1M a year, then what do you think of my theory that Gates’ contributions to DI are part of the payback for the dropping of the unfair monopoly charges against MicroSpank?

  18. says

    Actually, Matt, when in an online debate about transit I mentioned MARTA as the one sole example of PRT that actually works, I was corrected by the local stanch PRT advocate, who said that MARTA was not a “true” example of PRT! I could not help thinking, “And this helps your argument how…?”

    This Minneapolis PRT advocate has produced a plan that would essentially make PRT beams and vehicles replace walking and biking, rather than driving, since it follows sidewalks and bike paths rather than roads.

  19. lt.kizhe says

    Ottawa got Light Rail a couple of years back….sort of. Since they didn’t want to spend any real money on it, it runs on an existing freight line that goes almost nowhere useful, and does not parallel the main daily commuter flow (which is E-W, while the rail line is N-S). Ridership has been on the low side of projections. Fortunately, there seems to be the political will to get serious about it, by building extensions to the downtown core at one end and the airport at the other, and also create an E-W route (which I would love, since I live way out in the western ‘burbs). Only problem is, they’re talking about it being 2020 before it’s done — meanwhile they’re throwing more money at widening the expressway. Wrong priorities.

    But forget subways: there’s solid rock everywhere here.

  20. mgr says

    Having skimmed the white papers at the Cascadia site, and being familiar only with transportation issues in California–there appears to be some superficial legitimacy to the postions taken–however, one should not accept at face value the legitimacy of a public/private undertaking meeting long term public interests.

    Transporation is a potential cash cow for private engineering and construction. This was a key problem we encountered in California, and should be looked at keenly is the failure of the private/public undertakings–folks should look at the toll roads built by private incentive in the 1980’s in Orange County (during the Pete Wilson era, now handling the strings behind the stage in the Schwartzenegger era). What will occur under private auspices will be diminished investment in the infrastructure so to keep initial construction costs down; service charges that cannot keep pace with rising costs–and that once the system fails to be financially viable, the expectation that the public sector will bail it out.


  21. Kagehi says

    Actually, having heard people describe this… I can’t help but be amazed how these clowns think they can rename something and claim its a new idea. Oh wait… That’s all they ever do. lol

    Seriously, this is the *original* concept behind the people mover at Disney Land. Albeit the disney concept was more limited. But this is hardly impossible and not that impractical if you did it right. The main problem is that no one can or will do it right, unless someone builds an entire #@$#$ city around the idea in the first place. Think of a near by, very close, neighborhood carraige house like setup, where a certain percentage of those vehicles not already in service park themselves, until needed. You get it, punch in a destination, and it delivers you there. Not *that* different in concept or implimentation than most modern elevator systems, just a bit more two dimensional, instead of just up and down. But… Its **not** something you could effectively retrofit into an entire city, without seriously redesigning the damn city and having a least a working model of it some place, where people have used already and bugs have been fairly well worked out. I give them 5 points for recognizing that the idea isn’t a bad one, but dock them 20 for stealing it from Disney Imagineering.

  22. MikeM says

    Here’s what I think will happen here:

    Cascadia will go go all the major universities that teach engineering in the US (Cal, UCLA, Stanford, UW, MIT, and so on) and their engineering departments will all reject it. They’ll say that PRT is just a smokescreen; it’s just another name for “Cars and Roads.”

    After having 98% of the engineering world reject them, they’ll sue for universities to “Teach the Controversy!”.

    They don’t have a similar track record on a different subject, do they?

  23. says

    A simple test:

    If Michele Bachmann starts talking about evolution (which she opposes), you know it’s going to be bogus.

    If Michele Bachmann starts talking about transit (which she opposes), you know its going to be bogus.

    More skepticism on PRT:

    This is a resolution opposing public funding for PRT funding from Transit for Livable Communities. The Sierra Club Northstar has a similar resolution:

    Here is an Op Ed I wrote for the Seattle Post Intellligencer about PRT:

    This article explains why PRT is infeasible from an engineering perspective- Cyberspace Dream Keeps Colliding With Reality

    Dump Mark Olson:

    Dump Michele Bachmann:

  24. Torbjorn Larsson says

    Interesting – I didn’t know there was such a controversy about these systems. My interest is also kindled by that city planners has recently started to see these systems as solutions for some of Swedens larger cities. Small scale tests are said to be underway, for example a PRT system in Uppsala. Obviously existing Kyoto agreement suitable solutions such as heavy rail and biogas bus systems aren’t enough, then.

    Wikipedia divides and define categories as heavy rail, light rail, monorail and PRT. PRTs can be single mode (dedicated lines) or dual mode (alsoe uses existing traffic network), contrary to some comments above. Gingers question is perhaps answered: “PRT has been reinvented many times because it optimizes standard mathematical models used by transit-planners.”

  25. Torbjorn Larsson says

    Checking just one of Avidor’s links ( ) it seems at first like a terrible rant with arguments that would also apply to existing eminent LRTs like in Bangkok for example (blocking views, escalators, drip pans, …).

    But there are actually one seemingly huge problem presented: PRTs would easily get queing problems in/out of stations. The verified large queing effect of small narrowings or widenings in cars traffic systems should be a somewhat analogous situation. But if Wikipedia is correct, that argument too would fall.

    Probably another sign of a controversy.

  26. Torbjorn Larsson says


    Yes, I saw that warning, but I included several pages in my comment, and none of the definitions nor the argument about optimisation should be wrong, I thought. Perhaps I made a mistake.

    A nitpick/question: If PRT isn’t yet showed to be unfeasible, the proponents aren’t crackpot. Do we know that it’s unfeasible? Some PRTs are mentioned above, with approvals.

  27. Torbjorn Larsson says

    Okay, _now_ I made a mistake. They were probably mentioning LRTs. My question stands though.

  28. Torbjorn Larsson says

    Sigh! Another mistake: Even if PRTs optimises “standard” models, these models may not include the narrowing/widening traffic effect. AFAIK at least it’s verification is fairly late.

    I think I will direct my traffic to the bed now…

  29. says

    Here’s another test:

    Go ask a professional transportation engineer.

    I have and the ones who knew about it said that PRT was a waste of time.

    Like Intelligent Design, PRT has never passed peer review.

    There’s the 2001 OKI Report by Parsons Brinkerhoff that said PRT was infeasible for several reasons. It cost the taxpayers $625,000. The Light Rail Now Now article mentioned earlier explains the many engineering problems of PRT.

    Of course, the PRT cult has invented a conspiracy story to account for why PRT gets rejected time and again.

    Richard Feynman called this sort of nonsense “Cargo Cult Science”:

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    Incidentally, Uppsala’s ‘s PRT, 385 meters of which will be built on a soccer field sounds like another silly gadgetbahn scheme that will likely end up on CETA supporter Jerry Schneider’s silly gadgetbahn graveyard of a website:

  30. gracchus says

    Could be worse. I ran in to a Web site of an urban and transport planner, that was pro-automobile (“pro-opportunity” was I believe their jargon for it). It was in favor of suburban sprawl and freeways, because it allowed people to own big homes and as people were living this way, it was obviously right you condescending liberal elitists, you. Traffic congested? No problems, just double-deck the freeways! I thought initially the site was a parody, but as usual these days, satire is redundant. I couldn’t substantiate my suspicions the whole thing was paid for by the auto industry, either.

  31. Torbjorn Larsson says


    LOL! Problem is, there is in all probability professional transportation engineer behind this. Plus some of my tax money. I bet.

    Probably the same engineers who have started to make rondels and 2+1-to-1+2 lanes switchover motorways popular here since they make less deaths per transport meter.

    The first solution takes more land and a higher cost, while the latter takes less land and a lower cost. Problem is, they both reduce speed and increase driving complexity and seem to give more small accidents instead. These solutions are really annoying until you get used to them.

    About Feyman’s piece, I have always found it a hard read. The cargo cult was trying to repeat forms of behaviour, but missing something essential. It seems to me Feynman is trying to say amongst all that mess of anecdotes that pseudoscience is filtering out positive results and denying falsification.

    I honestly doesn’t see the relevance to PRT tests. They will compare the results with baseline transport methods which could falsify any purported benefits.

    Anyhow, even though I don’t know much about this area yet, you haven’t suceeded in making me believe it’s a cult. On the contrary, since the one link you gave that I looked at is a typical clumsy rant, I feel justified to believe that the shoe is on the other foot. For now.

  32. Loren Petrich says

    I agree that PRT is a non-starter — it’s essentially an automated taxi system on elevated rails.

    However, they are actually building some worthwhile rail transit in the Seattle-Tacoma area (site: ) They’ve started with a commuter-rail line called the “Sounder” that connects Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma, though it runs only on weekday rush hour and for Seattle Seahawks home games. And they’ve followed with the Tacoma Link downtown-Tacoma light-rail line in 2003. But that year, they’ve started construction of the Central Link light-rail line from central Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport; it should be done in 2009, with a planned “North Link” extension coming later.

    And looking at that site’s pages on long-range plans reveals even more ambitious projects, like connecting the Seattle and Tacoma light-rail lines. So it’s good that they didn’t listen to the Discovery Institute. :)

  33. A Transportation Enthusiast says

    Ken Avidor writes:

    “That Wikipedia page on PRT was written mostly by PRT proponents. It now carries a warning about its disputed neutrality”

    Just to be clear, Ken himself is the one disputing the neutrality on Wikipedia. I (and others) have repeatedly requested that he correct his perceived biases, but he refuses to do so, despite the fact that he claims to be an authority on this technology.

    Several of us have attempted to address his concerns, but he continues to make vague accusations of bias without making any effort to correct them. In short, the Wikipedia community cannot correct what it doesn’t perceive, and Mr. Avidor refuses to provide any details about his accusations.

    Mr. Avidor, I again impore you: either correct the problems with the article, or stop slandering it.


    for the ongoing discussion on the neutrality of the PRT article.

  34. says

    Sorry TE, Like Intelligent Design, PRT is a faith-based wedge issue used to stop reality-based solutions like LRT.

    Why else would it attract notorious LRT-haters like Michele Bachmann, Mark Olson, Shef Lang, Emory Bundy and Dean Zimmermann?

    I’m not the only one who thinks that way…

    Hey, here’s a website that combines PRT and Christianity:

    I especially like the “Saviorcycle”:

  35. A Transportation Enthusiast says

    To Torbjorn,

    I am new to PRT, so I’m not really a critic or a proponent, but I can tell you this: I am an engineer and I’ve looked at the math, and to this point I’ve seen no evidence that it has been proven infeasible.

    I’m still quite skeptical, and I still lean towards proven technologies (i.e. LRT), but PRT is not “joke” that some would have you believe. The mathematics and theory seem quite reasonable to me. I’ve read the lightrailnow critique, and while it makes a few good points, there are some significant flaws, especially when it comes to headways. Yes, I’ve done the analysis myself, and I invite you to do so as well.

    Certainly, PRT still has a lot to prove, and it may yet turn out to be infeasible in real world scenarios. I would still lean towards proven modes, but I have an open mind about it. I’m waiting to see how the current PRT projects in Europe and elsewhere turn out.

    Do not be swayed by activists, on one side or the other. There are some people who have an almost religious zeal in their views on the topic, so be sure not to be swayed by the vocal minority (one way or the other).

  36. Crash Test says

    PRT has a spectacular failure, the Denver Airport Luggage Handling System. Shut down by United Airlines for costing over 1 million per month to operate it had over 20 miles of guideways, hundreds of stops, thousands of autonomous on
    demand vehicles for suitcases. United just finished dumping 186 million in debt for the system on the public. It never did work, and could not be made to work.

    I call PRT the Zepplin of mass transit. It is always the “next greatest thing” for the last 40+ years but like the
    blimp it is an evolutionary dead end of technology. Other transportation tech that worked was always in wide use
    after 40 years, cars, trains, airplanes. Stuff that did
    not work: PRT, blimps, jet packs, hand flapping wings are just funny stuff to look at.