Self-driving pods could be the future of urban transport in Greenville

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Rendering provided by Ultra Global Ltd.

Imagine for a moment that you push a button and a personal cab arrives to take you to your destination. Instead of traveling on a congested interstate or highway that’s plagued with damaging potholes, your cab quickly zooms off across a system of elevated tracks. That’s the vision of Greenville County Councilman Fred Payne.

Payne is one of several local officials leading a new feasibility study of automated transit networks in Greenville, Mauldin, and Clemson. The study is being funded by the Greenville-Pickens Area Transportation Study with a $25,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration and matching funds from Greenville County and the cities of Greenville, Mauldin, and Clemson. It is being conducted by Colorado-based PRT Consulting.

An automated transit network (ATN) uses small automated vehicles that operate along elevated guideways in interconnected one-way loops. Passengers can call for one of the vehicles, or pods, at a station and then select a destination. The pods automatically pull offline at drop-off and pickup locations along the route, thus providing nonstop service. Most of today’s systems can accommodate between 2,000 and 7,000 passengers per hour per direction.

The modern concept of automated transit networks surfaced in the 1960s after it was introduced and endorsed in a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In the mid 1970s, West Virginia University at Morgantown built an automated transit network with five stations for $126 million. The system’s 71 automated, rubber-wheeled vehicles carry about 15,000 students per day. Other ATN systems can be found in South Korea, London, Abu Dhabi, and the Netherlands.

Payne and other leaders, including Greenville City Councilman George Fletcher, have advocated alternative transportation systems for years.

The Greenville County Economic Development Corp. (GCEDC) studied a plan in 2010 to turn an abandoned railroad along Laurens Road into a rapid transit line for buses that would carry passengers through Greenville, Mauldin, Simpsonville, and Fountain Inn. The plan didn’t expand ridership enough for it to be profitable so it was abandoned. But a study commissioned by the GCEDC in June 2014 showed that an ATN system would likely attract four times as many riders as a bus. However, the projected ridership was still too low to qualify for federal funding.

In 2015, GCEDC issued a request for proposals for the design and development of a 20-mile automated transit network to connect Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research and downtown Greenville. Two companies (Skycab International of Auckland, New Zealand, and Taxi 2000 Corp. of Minnesota) submitted proposals, but the procurement process was halted shortly after.

Skycab International’s proposal was deemed “nonresponsive” because it did not outline a detailed plan for 100 percent private financing, according to Payne. Taxi 2000, on the other hand, listed two sources of potential funding but failed to adhere to the requirements listed in the RFP when asked for additional information by GCEDC.

Rendering provided by Ultra Global Ltd.

Peter Muller, owner and president of PRT Consulting, said the new feasibility study would look to determine ridership and whether enough revenue can be generated through fares to support the operating and maintenance costs as well as, possibly, the capital costs of an automated transit network across the Upstate.

The construction of an automated transit network would probably cost between $15 million and $25 million per mile, according to Muller. The county could create a Tax Increment Financing district to pay back private investors with additional property and business revenues it creates over time. It could also request federal funding or explore other revenue sources, including vehicle advertisements and station sponsorships.

PRT Consulting is currently developing conceptual layouts for the proposed ATN system, according to Muller.

The initial phase could include a demonstration system at Greenville-Spartanburg (GSP) International Airport. “This has the advantage of allowing the community to ‘kick the tires’ and of providing ‘proof of value’ of the system,” according to a study published last year by PRT Consulting.

In 2014, GSP approved a study to compare shuttle bus and ATN systems for proposed expanded parking facilities. The study was completed in 2015 and found that an ATN system could connect to existing and proposed parking lots in seven minutes compared with up to 17 minutes by shuttle bus. It also found that an ATN system had lower lifecycle costs than a shuttle bus system and provided higher levels of service.

GSP issued a request for proposals shortly after for the design and development of a more-than-$20 million, battery-powered ATN system to transport travelers from its economy lot to a main terminal. Two companies (2getthere of Holland and Modutram of Mexico) were shortlisted, but the Airport Authority decided to put the project on hold pending the completion of a master plan study that’s currently in progress.

The GSP system, if successful, could eventually expand to a secondary system in downtown Greenville, according to PRT Consulting. That system’s layout would include 13 stations and 3.8 miles of guideway with routes connecting downtown to the Bon Secours Wellness Arena and Greenville Health System’s Memorial campus, and St. Francis Downtown to the Greenlink transfer station. “This ATN layout will greatly improve the inter-accessibility of all key downtown facilities including most parking decks,” according to PRT Consulting.

The system could then expand to a 3.42-mile rail corridor that parallels Laurens Road between downtown and Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research. It could be further expanded throughout Greenville and eventually into Mauldin and Clemson.

Rendering provided by Ultra Global Ltd.

Once expanded into the more densely populated areas, the system could improve mobility and decrease congestion, according to PRT Consulting. It could also reduce the need for parking facilities and bus services along ATN corridors in Greenville. “This would result in savings that could be used to help fund collector bus routes and to improve service to areas outside the city limits,” according to PRT Consulting. “Integrating bus and ATN services so that they each support the other and improve overall transit services is a goal.”

Greenville’s public transit system, Greenlink, has long suffered from poor service due to its limited geographic reach, limited run schedule, and long wait times between buses. In fact, the maximum time to reach any bus stop within the city limits from the Greenlink downtown transfer station is about 45 minutes, according to PRT Consulting.

A 2015 study conducted by Piedmont Health Foundation found that more people borrowed a car or caught a ride from a family or friend than took the bus, often because of the bus system’s limitations. The study included more than 3,500 community responses to a written survey. Only 10 percent of the survey’s respondents said the system’s schedule met their needs. The buses run between 5:30 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. on weekdays, 8:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and not at all on Sundays or holidays.

Greenlink’s governing agency, the Greenville Transit Authority, has since completed a “transit development plan” that identifies potential expansions in fixed route bus service, estimates the cost to implement these expansions, estimates the potential ridership gain that would occur from such expansions and lists possible funding sources to be explored. Examples of possible improvements include extending evening service, increasing frequency of service, establishing Sunday service and creating new bus routes to connect unserved areas. While the recommendations will be discussed at the open house, implementation of any changes will require further financial investment.

The Greenville Transit Authority plans to hold an open house event for Greenville County residents to learn more about the study and view the final recommendations from Connetics Transportation Group, the firm hired by the transit authority to conduct the study. The event is scheduled for Thursday, April 26, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the transit center at 11 E. McBee Ave.

“After nearly a year of planning, with the comprehensive operations analysis and now the Transit Development Plan, we feel confident that we know what it will take to create a better public transportation system in Greenville County,” said Gary Shepard, Greenlink’s public transportation director, in a news release. “The next step will be determining if these improvements are a priority investment for our community.”

As for the future of the Upstate’s automated transit network, the feasibility study should be complete by July, according to Muller. From there, depending on the results, local officials could decide to investigate other funding and revenue sources, conduct additional studies, move forward with the project with private financing, or abandon it altogether.

Payne declined to provide a tentative timeline for the system’s completion should it garner adequate ridership and funding. But he said suppliers that submit bids for the system’s contract would have to provide an engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) company capable of bonding the cost of removal in the event of failure. Suppliers would also have to provide an ATN control company capable of operating and maintaining the system according to a franchise agreement. The public sector, on the other hand, would provide nonexclusive access to public rights-of-way for the system’s construction.


Automated Transit Networks
By the Numbers

$15 million and $25 million
Estimated construction cost per mile of a citywide ATN

10 percent
People who said city Greenlink bus service met their needs

161
Miles of possible routes under consideration

233
Stations under consideration

2,000-7,000
Passengers/hour/direction accommodated by one ATN guideway

How is ATN different than a self-driving car?

An automated transit network (ATN) is a next-generation public transport that uses small automated vehicles that operate along elevated guideways in interconnected loops and can accommodate 2,000 to 7,000 passengers/hour/direction. It seeks to take more individual cars off the road, and replace them with self-driving pods on elevated guideways.

A self-driving or “driverless” car is a form of personal transportation capable of operating without human control. Using sensors, connectivity, and software/control algorithms, technology is able to navigate a car safely without human control. Right now, autonomous cars are legal only in a few U.S. states, as regulators weigh how to best ensure their safe interaction with standard human-driven vehicles. Their impact on congestion is largely unknown.

Why ATN?

  • Cleaner air
  • Reduced noise pollution
  • Safer areas to walk and ride
  • Increased safety and convenience
  • Reduced congestion

Did you know?

In 2017, South Carolina penned its first piece of legislation, H3289, dealing with automated driving, clearing regulations for minimum following distance for platooning vehicles. South Carolina is one of 22 states to enact legislation addressing autonomous vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.


Monday, April 2, 11:38 p.m.: This story has been updated. 

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