Company Reimagines Public Transit with ‘Flying Solar Pods’

It might sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but Boston-based Transit X is pitching an idea that would send solar-powered pods zipping through the urban landscape.

by Emily Hamer, The Wisconsin State Journal / June 5, 2019
Courtesy Transit X (via promotional video)

(TNS) — One company thinks the future of Madison’s public transit system is 20 feet above city streets in tiny solar-powered pods.

Transit X, a Boston-area company, claimed it could revolutionize city transportation with a 108-mile network of lightweight “flying solar pods” that would each carry four to five passengers all around Madison on elevated railways.

The proposal was met with skepticism Monday at a city Transportation Policy and Planning Board meeting, where a transit planner's review included 10 reasons why the project isn't currently feasible in Madison.

According to Transit X, the proposed 7,103 pods would travel up to 45 mph, be within a five-minute walk of 95% of the city population, have 700 stops and be operational within a year or two. Transit X also proposed a smaller, 31-mile network with 1,916 pods for the city to start with.

The company also claimed it would develop the micro railway at no cost to the city, as the project would be privately funded.

Transit X founder Mike Stanley said he thinks the pods are a “silver bullet” that will eventually eliminate the need for buses, cars and other forms of transportation.

“We’re creating something with the cost, the capacity and the convenience to be able to replace cars,” Stanley said.

But Madison transit planner Mike Cechvala said the solar pod technology is still experimental.

“Transit X says … they have figured out how to do (a) very slim, cheap, easy-to-construct system,” Cechvala said. “But they haven’t yet.”

He said Transit X hasn't built a pod railway system yet, only a pod prototype.

A city Department of Transportation review of Transit X’s proposal, presented by Cechvala at Monday’s meeting, listed a range of barriers for implementing the project, including the feasibility of creating a pod that's both lightweight and safe. Pods likely would have to become more obtrusive, the review said, similar to the design of a roller coaster, to ensure safety.

Among other concerns: Transit X has overestimated revenue, underestimated the timeline of the project, not certified the pods for safety, not ensured the pods would be wheelchair accessible, not addressed how the fast-traveling pods would function at intersections, and not fully considered the challenges of securing air rights or constructing the railway around street lights.

But in a 16-page response, Stanley said the technology is more realistic than the city might think.

He said Altran, an engineering firm, and Arcadis, a construction firm, both confirmed the feasibility of his project.

A project similar to the one proposed in Madison could be coming to Georgia. Transit X has an agreement to build a 36-mile test track in a rural area near Atlanta. If the company finds an investor to fund the project's pre-construction phase, the rest would be funded by Jefferies, a New York City investment banking firm.

The planning board said it would continue to monitor Transit X's progress and might look at its proposal again when it has more evidence that the project is realistic. But for now, the city will keep its focus on developing Bus Rapid Transit.

"I would never say something’s not possible because it’s great to think about different ways of doing things, but just this particular model at this time is unproven," said Ald. Keith Furman, 19th District. "It just doesn’t seem realistic, unfortunately."

©2019 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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