May 22 2013

The Curse of Expertise

- courtesy of

We touched down in the cool, quiet dawn of a central Indian city. The city shall remain nameless for the purpose of this article, but it's one that few westerners have heard of. By the standards of the great Indian megacities, it's a sleepy, almost rustic place -- just a few million people, but with an economy that is booming along with the rest of India.


I had been invited by the city to come have an informal talk with the mayor about PRT. A quick googling of the area revealed considerable promise for PRT: the airport was planning additional runways and a greatly expanded terminal; a vast new Special Enterprise Zone was being planned nearby; and of course the city had all the urban transport problems of any rapidly-growing, multi-million-person city. All in all, plenty of potential for PRT.


Over chai, I met with the mayor's advisor after breakfast, and briefed him on how I'd been thinking about PRT for his city. "At first glance," I told him, "I'd start with the airport. PRT systems are already proven in airport operations, so you could start with a PRT system just a bit larger than what they have at Heathrow, and grow the system from there.


"The next place I'd expand it to is the SEZ -- as a new-build environment, it's a lot easier to implement PRT there, and the addition of PRT can really help with the planning and business-case for an SEZ. Also, there are some interesting ways in which palletised freight on PRT vehicles -- we call it FRT, or Freight Rapid Transit -- could really enhance the logistical operations within the SEZ. 


"Finally, with a robust airport/SEZ network in place, it would be relatively easy to expand out through the rest of the city, tackling the high-volume congestion problems, probably in conjunction with a few mass transit corridors to handle the peak-hour demand. A development plan like this would give you the least risky and most financially-viable system. What do you think?"


The mayor's advisor wrinkled his brow. "Yes, I can see the logic of that. Unfortunately, you must undersand that the city, airport, and SEZ all operate under completely different jurisdictions. If we're being realistic, they don't always work together with perfect harmony. So the mayor can only address things from the city's perspective, and really can't speak for the airport or the SEZ. It would probably be best if you could focus on what PRT can do for the city."


"Alas, that's a bit disappointing. But if that's the reality we have to work with, then we'll work with it. But I should tell you that the reason I had put the city last is because tackling high-volume urban congestion problems with farebox-driven business cases often isn't the best way to use PRT. Eventually, large-scale PRT networks will be able to do this, but right now, you're usually better-off starting with a smaller, lower-volume systems that derive their business cases from external factors such as land-value uplift and operational benefits.


"So, there may or may not be a good opportunity for PRT within the city. Understand that I'll have to be very candid with the mayor if I think that it isn't appropriate here. But we can go over the facts on what it can and can't do, and then explore the possibilities from there."


"Yes, that's all we can do at this point," agreed the mayor's advisor. "But one more thing: don't be too technical. The mayor is a very smart guy, but he's a career politician, not a planner or engineer. Don't try to bury him under a lot of facts and figures -- just give him the general ideas, and he'll do fine with those."


I agreed that I'd do my best to keep the conversation as non-technical as possible (not an easy thing for me!), and we departed for the city offices. They turned out to be in a sprawling complex of old colonial-era buildings, with ancient ceiling fans turning lazily in high-ceilinged marble rooms. After being ushered through no fewer than four intermediate foyers, we finally found ourselves into the mayors inner sanctum. It was covered in decades worth of placards: assorted honorary degrees and miscellaneous good-governance awards. Finally, the mayor entered.


My years in India have taught me a number of different archetypes for Indian politicians. This one was the "spry elder statesman" archetype: sharp as a tack, bursting with ideas, no time to waste.


"Unfortunately I only have half an hour," he said by way of introduction, "but let's see what you've got."


I quickly gave him my standard PRT intro, sticking to the generic details: here's what it does, why it's great, what it can and can't do, how it's being used, and where it's being planned. He absorbed everything rapidly, asking a few sharp questions along the way. Deciding that honesty was definitely the best policy with a formidable player such as this, I told him that in all honestly I thought that the airport was probably the best place to get PRT started, followed by the SEZ, then tackling the city's overall urban transport problems last.


"Yes, yes, I can definitely see your logic," the mayor replied. "But I have a better idea. We need to move into a bigger room."


Instantly the mayor's staff swarmed around us, while we moved to a large conference room with a vast oaken table. Various plans of the city were quickly brought out and spread across it.


"If I am understanding this correctly," the mayor said, "then you don't want to tackle a full-scale urban systems right away, because that's too big a leap from the current systems, yes? But in the meantime PRT can still provide very useful services for certain applications, particularly where the business case isn't based on collecting revenues from a high volume of passengers. So first start with those systems, and then grow them into a larger urban network, yes? I am understanding this correctly?"


"Yes, perfectly! Actually, wow, nobody ever gets it so quick--"


"Very well," continued the mayor, having no time for flattery, "then tell me if this would work. There is a large private development being planned here" -- he indicated a large, narrow swath between the city and the airport -- "which would have housing and shopping for a few tens of thousands of people. These will be high net worth individuals -- I know their psychology, and they'll never ride a bus or a metro, but if they're all in cars then it will increase the congestion in the area significantly. But I think they would be very happy to ride in these pods, yes?"


"Yes, we've surveyed thousands of people of people in Delhi and Mumbai, and found that high-income car-owners actually show the greatest willingness to shift--"


"Very well, I thought that would be the case. So, obviously there should be a PRT network within this development. It can't go everywhere in the city, of course, but a short connection to the airport would be very valuable to this profile of residents, and would alleviate traffic congestion considerably. How long would it take to go from here" -- pointing at the middle of the development zone -- "to the airport terminal?"


"No more than seven minutes..." I estimated.


"Yes, excellent, that would be very valuable indeed. These people always have drivers, of course, but being in a pod for seven minutes would be much better than being chauffeured for 45 minutes. I'm sure that this would put up the property prices. So the developer should be happy to pay for it, yes?"


"Or we can provide financing to the developer -- but yes, that strikes me as a very sound idea."


The mayor pondered the map a bit more, and then continued.


"Actually, this can do much more than just take people to the airport, yes? It could also be a kind of horizontal lift, taking people to and from their shopping, or offices if they're within the development, yes?"




"Very well, and as long as it's running inside the development like that, does it need freestanding infrastructure? You said this could run inside buildings -- so why not just run it within the buildings for most of the length of the route? That would probably be cheaper than building a lot of freestanding infrastructure from scratch."


"Wow," I said. This guy was almost supernaturally sharp. "I actually wrote a paper about that---"


"-- It just seems obvious," the mayor continued. "And as long as you've got a horizontal lift through the entire complex, then you don't need to have car parks all along the ground floor. Just consolidate them at either end of the development, and let people take a pod from their flat to their car. that would free up the ground floor throughout most of the development, increasing the total amount of rentable floorspace, even with the pods taking up some space. I'm sure the developers would appreciate that. And by consolidating the car parks at either end, you'd also eliminate most of the traffic and congestion along the length of the development. Am I correct in guessing that this would work?"


I boggled. Either the mayor was a certifiable genius, or else he was reading my mind, or else he had done vastly more homework about PRT than I'd been led to believe. I'd never seen anybody grasp these ideas so quickly. "Yes... yes, sir, you're absolutely correct. That's exactly how it would work!"


"Very well. In that case, the developer will definitely be happy to pay for this, because it will give them higher real estate prices, and more rentable space. So this is the business case. Then, anything the system makes from the ticket sales is just icing on the cake, yes? This would help the city, because it would reduce the congestion impacts from the development, but of course eventually you'd want to spread the network out to the rest of the city, yes? Very well, yes, then this is exactly what we will do!"


I was elated. I've had a number of positive meetings with Indian politicians, but this was by far the most realistic proposal that any had ever come up with.


"The PRT system will need to be certified as a public carrier, of course, and we'll need to go through all the proper channels for studying its impacts on the city, and ensuring that the procurement process is managed transparently. For that, we will need to commission a feasibility / impacts study." He rang a bell and fired a fusillade of requests at the staffer who answered. "Me, I am not the person to speak to about that -- I am merely a humble politician with no real technical knowledge about these matters -- but let me introduce you to the head engineer of the Municipal Corporation."


On queue, the chief engineer walked into the room. "Mr. _______ is my right-hand man in these matters. He is a transport engineer with decades of experience with this city, and was one of the top graduates in the very top university in the country. He knows everything there is to know about transport, and I trust him completely. I leave you in his very capable hands, and the two of you can figure out how to take this forward."


The mayor rapidly briefed the head engineer in the local language, and departed, apologising, since he was now very late for his next meeting. I, meanwhile, was on cloud nine. This genius of a mayor had just cooked up, in 45 minutes, one of the most sensible concepts for a PRT system that I'd ever encountered.


The engineer took a seat at the table and pursed his lips. He had an honest, intelligent face, but it looked troubled. "The mayor has briefed me about his idea," he said, "but I'm afraid that it won't work. You see, there are transport projects and real-estate development projects. It sounds like the mayor wants to treat this as a real-estate project. But that is not possible. A project cannot be both a transport project and a real-estate project; it must be one or the other. This is clearly a transport project, and the study and procurement process must treat it as such."


A cold knot suddenly formed in my stomach. I decided to gently push back.


"I'm not sure that this distinction between transport projects and real-estate projects is entirely valid. If you consider how the London Underground was developed, for example: most of its lines were financed by private developers as a real-estate project. They bought up land near where the stations would go, built the infrastructure, and then sold off the land as it appreciated in value. This paid back the capital costs of the infrastructure very quickly, without having to wait decades for the sale of tickets. That was a very good business model for London, and is basically what the mayor has proposed here."


The engineer shook his head and sighed. "This," he explained patiently, "is a transport project."


Suddenly I realised that this wasn't going to work.


The engineer continued: "For a transport project, what the feasibility study needs to do is identify the top-priority transit corridors in the city. Then pick the highest-volume corridors and engineer a system for them. Then determine whether the sale of tickets and other operational revenues is sufficient to close the business case. That is how it is done."


"Yes, sir, I do understand that's how it is done for mass transit systems... but this is PRT. It's not a mass transit system. It has properties which make it much more effective for medium-volume demand patterns over spread-out areas, and relatively less effective for high-volume linear commuting corridors. Would you like me to show you my presentation about how PRT differs from--"


"-- I have been involved in developing public transport systems for almost 40 years. I understand very well how the process works. This will not be different. I am very happy to support this process, but it must fit within the established practices for studying, tendering, procuring, and licensing a public transport system."


I knew the battle was lost, and let the municipal engineer steer the conversation in the direction he wanted: how the city could procure a PRT system using its traditional mechanisms. He was, in fact, entirely correct: what the mayor had proposed would have been a radical departure from traditional public transport development practices. It would have introduced all sorts of regulatory and jurisdictional headaches simply on account of its novelty. The engineer was drawing upon his considerable experience to give me very honest and helpful advice about what would be the least complicated and risky way to implement a PRT system in his city. Putting myself in his shoes, I was entirely sympathetic to his perspective.


And yet... the least complicated and risky way to implement a PRT system -- from the perspective of the very experienced Municipal engineer -- would result in a project definition that would be comparatively ill-suited to PRT, costlier to the city, and deliver the least benefit to the city as it grew. Maybe it would be viable and maybe it wouldn't be, but it would take a huge amount of demand-modelling and multimodal simulation work to find out. In contrast, what the mayor had proposed -- from the perspective of the technology, the business case, and the strategic growth of the city -- was a far more viable concept, even if it would have been more of a bureaucratic battle to get it built. I was struck that the mayor had been able to envision this, despite being an avowed non-expert in any technical discipline.


The remainder of my day was spent enjoying the life of this pleasant city, pondering how too much experience can sometimes be a prison, and how new ideas can sometimes only be seen by fresh eyes.


I flew back to Delhi at dusk, and have heard nothing from the city since.


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