Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Putting Mountaineers in Gear

By Karl Vilacoba

Planetizen.com has posted a column which took me down Memory Lane – which in this case is an elevated, electrified roadway traversed by unmanned blue and gold vans.

In “Personal Rapid Transit: The Connective Tissue of Better Mobility,” University of Washington Professor Emeritus Jerry Schneider discusses two PRT systems and how they might serve as models for other cities. Schneider was enthusiastic about PRTs’ potential to provide relatively cheap, reliable and environmentally friendly public transportation. The two systems he focuses on chiefly – the ULTra PRT at London’s Heathrow Airport and the Vectus PRT in Sweden – are both under construction and considered cutting edge. A PRT I grew to know well was once, too, but those days are long gone.

In the early 1970s, Morgantown, W.Va.’s PRT was built to connect West Virginia University’s original downtown campus to a newer one springing up two miles away in the city’s Evansdale section. The system has five stops: Walnut Street, in the downtown shopping area; Beechurst Avenue, in the heart of the downtown campus buildings; Engineering, the stop for the Coliseum hoops arena, engineering school and other university buildings in Evansdale; the Towers dorms; and Medical, the drop-off point for Mountaineer Field, the medical school and local hospital. You can ride from one end of the line to the other in about 20 minutes; going by foot would mean crossing a mini-mountain that separates the two areas.

Before I put in my dorm request as an incoming freshman, I sought living advice from an upperclassman I knew. He laid it out like this: The Towers dorms are modern, cleaner, and have better cafeterias and amenities, but you have to ride the PRT to class every day. The downtown dorms are ancient, cold and crumbling, but are in the middle of it all. Ever the Jersey boy, I gravitated to the more urban downtown area.

Although I lived downtown, the PRT nonetheless became a major part of my college life. On football game mornings, when Morgantown becomes the largest city in West Virginia, ridership swelled as visitors and students like myself sardined ourselves in the (allegedly) 20-person capacity cars. You’d also be hard-pressed not to get stuck with at least a few courses out in Evansdale over your career, no matter how hard you tried to avoid it.

I can’t imagine how I would have gotten by without the PRT. It ran steadily from morning to the evening, and cars weren’t difficult to come by. Rides were free by swiping your student ID through the turnstile and 50 cents for anyone else; next to a newspaper or a postage stamp, can you think of a better value today than that? I lived in a house with a track running through my backyard, yet it was so quiet I rarely even noticed it.

There were also times I thought PRT could have stood for Pain in the Rear Tailbone. The university touts its 98 percent reliability, but I’m willing to bet that 2 percent failure came inordinately during the rough Morgantown winters, when you dreaded getting stranded the most. There were other times when it felt like the so-called “PRT Gods” –faceless operators who controlled the cars from a remote location, never making themselves known except to scald a misbehaving student on the platform over the loudspeaker – were playing tricks on me. You’d push the button for your destination, then watch a car pull up to you and just idle there, doors closed, for minutes on end.

Today, the PRT is an indispensable part of campus life and a selling point for prospective students. According to a recent New York Times piece, there’s a debate going on now over whether to expand the system by five more stops. If something were to happen that caused the PRT to vanish tomorrow, it would be a disaster. Morgantown is an old city of narrow, wildly sloped streets that were not planned to handle anything near its modern traffic. Anything that means getting cars off these streets is profoundly positive, especially when you’re talking about drivers 18-22 years old.

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