Personal Rapid Transit… Ann Arbor!

I came across the below image in AADL’s “Old News” Archives:


Courtesy of Ann Arbor District Library & the Ann Arbor News

“COMPUTER CONTROLS VAN: Program analyst Bob Comfort operates controls which guide a driverless Swedish van along a 5,500-foot roadway at the Bendix Corporation’s Transportation Control Laboratory on Plymouth Road. From his seat inside the computer control center he can watch the vehicles as they make their way along the asphalt roadway. Published in Issue: Ann Arbor News, June 30, 1972

That caption got my attention. Based on the timing of the story (early 1970’s) could Bendix have been testing a Personal Rapid Transit system? The corresponding newspaper article confirmed it:


June 30, 1972

Imagine being able to push a button to summon a vehicle which – without a driver – could take you to the high spots of Ann Arbor at any time of the day for relatively low cost.

It would beat having to wait on a corner for a bus, paying a high fare, and then ending up at a place which required you to walk a while to get to your actual desired destination.

Such a low-cost rapid transit system is still in the dream stages and Bendix Corp. Transportation Systems don’t really promote the idea when they talk about their Transportation Controls Laboratory which has been in operation at the Aerospace Division, 3300 Plymouth Rd., since November 1971.

Yet, such a system might be a long, long-range possibility that could come out of tests now being conducted at the lab.

The lab consists of a computer control center, three Swedish Kalmar small delivery vans and a 5,500 foot roadway which includes a 2,000-foot inner loop mainline, all on a 15-acre site.

The lab is testing controls for what Bendix calls Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) Systems. Such systems would consist of relatively small – perhaps 20-passenger – vehicles which would be fully automated, completely controlled by programmed computers and operable without a driver.

The Transportation Controls Laboratory “has nothing to do with the development of vehicels [sic]. It deals in controlling the vehicles on guideways through use of computers,” Charles Weatherred, director of Bendix’s Transportation System Department, told the News. “It really wouldn’t matter what type of vehicle we used on the track (roadway).”

The three electronically powered (20 horsepower) Swedish driverless vehicles make their winding rounds on the track under the strict guidance of a computer which is in the computer control center located at the side of the roadway. The computer is programmed to decide a quick, safe route for the vehicles.

Wires below the asphalt roadway keep the vehicles in communication with the computer.

Though the Transportation Control Laboratory is not specifically involved in the development of vehicles to be used in a PRT system, it has devised controls for a PRT vehicle, which was built for demonstration at the International Transportation Exposition (Transpo-72) held May 27 to June 4 in Washington, D.C. That bus-like vehicle was built by the Boening Co. under a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“Please don’t call the vehicle a bus,” exhorts Weatherred. It is an air-conditioned, 31-passenger, carpeted vehicle.

Under another phase of the same Department of Transportation grant, Bendix has been providing controls for a PRT system being built as the first of its kind in Morgantown, W. Va., near the West Virginia University campus.

The “personal” in PRT refers to the fact that the passenger presses a buttom [sic] to summon a vehicle and then directs the vehicle to the station destination of his choice.””

The article continues on about how excited Bendix is about the prospects of PRT systems but this is a good place to stop.

With the demise of many existing urban mass transit systems in the 1940s and 1950s (i.e Street cars), the collapse of passenger railways and soaring levels of traffic congestion and air pollution, the Federal Government in the mid-1960s began looking for new mass transit solutions to alleviate traffic problems endemic to major metropolitan areas. The Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) was created in 1964 to begin tackling these problems (the agency now known as the Federal Transit Administration).

Planners at the time believed one of the key drivers of the failure of existing mass transit systems was their inherent inflexibility when compared to the mobility and independence that the car provided. So rather than promote traditional mass transit options, the UMTA focused on developing new systems that combined the independence and flexibility of automobile travel with the efficiency and economy of scale of mass transit system. Hence the PRT model which is explained much for in-depth here. The UMTA also funded the creation of people mover systems like the Detroit People Mover (which still runs!) and Bus Rapid Transit systems  but I want to focus on Bendix and their Personal Rapid Transit Work…. which really came to nothing except for the one notable example mentioned in the Ann Arbor News Article.

The only large-scale PRT system built in the U.S. was the one built in mid-70’s in Morgantown, W. Va. which Bendix provided system controls (as the Ann Arbor News article states). And 40+ years later it’s still running!


“Please don’t call this a Bus” (according to Bendix)  – a PRT Pod follows it’s track on the Morgantown/University of West Viriginia PRT. Courtesy of “Jen & Elwood” via Flickr

There are five stations on the 3.6 mile closed route and the flexibility of the PRT system allows you to go from one station to any other you want to directly. No intermediate stops, no set routes, at your starting station you simply press the button for your desired destination station, wait for your pod-car to arrive and then travel straight there.


Beechurst PRT Station, courtesy of  Paula Cristina via Flickr

I wonder how much of Bendix’s control system is still in use or has been replaced? It’s very cool to think that parts of this amazing mass-transit system from the past (and future) was developed right here in Washtenaw County. Below is a great video tour of the Morgantown PRT system (with ride-along!). How do we push for one of these in Ann Arbor?






One thought on “Personal Rapid Transit… Ann Arbor!

  1. Pingback: Personal Rapid Transit …. in Ann Arbor! Part 2 | buildingwashtenaw

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