Saturday, October 25, 2008

PodCars for Improved Transit at Walt Disney World?

One of Walt Disney World's largest going concerns for the last half-dozen years or so has been how to keep guests who reserve rooms at the WDW Resort to stay on property for the length of their vacation. A key component of this has been the Disney's Magical Express bus system that provides guests free transportation from the airport directly to the on-site resort. Combined with the internal transportation options, that removes the need for a car. But also key has been the huge expansion in available hotel rooms (exclusively through the Disney Vacation Club program) that means more predictable bookings for the parks.

The question the mouse is dealing with now is once they're on property, what to do with all those guests. Downtown Disney is being retooled to handle some of the nightlife refocusing it on dining, shopping, and entertainment instead of nightclubs. Also efforts are being made to spread similar activities around to various resorts as appropriate. Of course the easy answer is just to extend park hours a bit too. And that's being looked at.

The other part of that equation is how to move guests who arrive on property without cars around the resort the most efficient, but also cost effective, way. The monorail solution that was once thought to be the answer has a mostly point to point efficiency. The more stops you add the less efficient it is at moving guests around.

The other solution in use is bus transport. This system is most 'efficient' (to the point of being used above real capacity) at the beginning and end of the day when large numbers of guests are leaving from one resort to one destination (a park or entertainment zone). But is terribly inefficient in terms of energy, maintenance, and labor hour resources for large sections of the day and for moving guests from resort hotel to resort hotel.Which becomes more crucial as Disney spreads amenities out to the hotels, not just at Downtown Disney or in the parks.

Disney has at times looked at a lightrail solution. But although Light Rail is cheaper than monorails to build, it would create congestion as it shares the road grade level, and has the same problems as it is mostly a point to point system that requires parks and resorts to be in a straight line, which they definitely are not at Walt Disney World.

As it turns out there is a system designed specifically to handle moving riders efficiently around in a multiple destination system that even allows each family of riders to choose their particular destination and routes them there the most direct way possible with no other stops. It's called Personal Rapid Transport (PRT). A version of it known as the PodCar system is now being implemented at the Heathrow Airport and similar systems are being installed or considered in cities around the world.

I've recently discovered that Walt Disney World's transportation committee is currently studying the PodCar system to see how it could be implemented at the Resort. To understand why this is the perfect solution for Walt Disney World you have to understand how PRT works. (I apologize in advance if I'm not the best photoshop user in the world)

The main line runs to every destination. The track typically runs just one direction, so loop backs are used to keep travel time to a minimum. The stations are all off the main line and cars are dispatched so that no station is without a waiting car for more than a few minutes. If too many cars are in the station, there is a mid-point reentry. If it's a high volume station you can have multiple load and re-entry ramps.

Each enclosed car is driverless and programmed to use the shortest route to reach the destination selected by the passengers. Cars typically run on an elevated track (or suspended below the track in a few variations of PRT). This means property rights are easier to acquire and stations can be located above the main road or along side it as best fits the traffic patterns.

One quandary the WDW Transportation Committee has been tackling is how to handle the rush hour situations when parks tend to empty out in rapid fashion after the last fireworks or parade.. The answer is actually fairly simple. Multiple loading and unloading stations would be installed at the major destinations and departure points (mostly theme parks) and staging areas for empty Podcars would be located nearby each park to quickly fill in with a new car as one departs. These would keep the lines moving.

The other issues are cleanliness and what to do if a car gets stuck on the track. Cleanliness would be monitored by station attendants or any family finding their car in bad shape can refuse it before getting in and send that car to an off track station to be cleaned. Cars broken down on track can be solved by careful design of the loops and a few regions where two-way travel is possible. Which brings up the issue of cost. The costs of PRT are generally considered to be two to three times less than light rail, both in installation and maintenance.

I would love to see Walt Disney World take the leap and set up a Podcar system. Even if it is limited in scope initially. It would relieve some of the issues with transportation between destinations that aren't theme parks. Perhaps they could use it to link the DVC hotels together with the monorail and boat system. The USA needs a proof of concept to encourage cities and local governments to develop their own PodCar systems. If Disney worked out the kinks they could then sell their brand of the system, like the original plan was with the Peoplemover and Monorail technologies back in the 70s.

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