Tysons Corner: Transformation via PRT

An option for the Tysons Circulator Plan. First version: Feb '09. Current revision: Jan 2011 


ULTra is a battery-driven, 200-mpg-equivalent, elevated personal rapid transit (PRT) system with many four-person vehicles. First passenger operation began at  London Heathrow Airport in 2010, serving Terminal 5. Working as circulator transit for office parks, airports, universities, and other major activity centers, ULTra is faster than a car. In these applications, ULTra makes carpooling, Metro, and bus more effective, by solving the "last mile problem." PRT also enables longer bike commutes and shopping trips. A three-minute youtube video of ULTra can be viewed here: http://www.ultraprt.net/cms/  Peer-reviewed market research for two San Francisco Bay Area transit-served major job centers, Palo Alto's Stanford Research Park (SRP) and Pleasanton's Hacienda Business Park, forecasts a PRT-induced commuting mode reduction from more than 80% single occupancy vehicle (SOV) down to 45% SOV. In these two studies, carpooling increased to more than 30% and commuter rail transit increased beyond 15%. Such commuting shift shifts acres of parking for higher use. 


The Virginia Legislature's January 2009 "Viability of PRT for Virginia" report concludes: "Interest and development of PRT appears to be growing around the world. With the inevitable construction of at least two systems and the testing underway of several others (although in most cases not at full scale), it can be argued that PRT is proving to be a feasible technology." In California, three cities are pursuing PRT systems: San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Alameda.


Tysons Corner is a well-known suburban "edge city," on 4.9 square miles with a worker-heavy daytime population of more than 100,000. Below is an approximate PRT system concept sketch.  The red, green, and blue segments roughly follow the three shuttle bus circulator routes shown in the Tysons Strawman report (see below for a shuttle bus map). Each of the three PRT segments has roughly 15 stations and 4 miles of PRT guideway, with a very rough cost estimate of $30M to $60M per segment. The latest PRT cost information may be found at: http://www.ultraprt.net/cms/index.php?page=cost-per-mile-7m---15m. PRT can easily service 30,000 or more passenger rides per day in Tysons. The greater PRT system covers a 4km x 2.5 area:



High resolution satellite imagery of this sketch can be found at: http://www.ultraprt.net/cms/tysons2b.jpg (4000x2800, 3MB).

This sketch does not attempt to snake the PRT guideway around buildings as it should.


Relevant PRT Quotes

  • "I can’t think of a more promising location for PRT in the region than Tyson’s Corner. Everyone agrees that its auto-based transportation network can’t support any more growth. I think the enthusiasm level for circulator buses is going to be low, and conversely you may be able to generate some enthusiasm for PRT as an alternative. The workforce in Tysons is fairly affluent; if you can save them significant time relative to a circulator bus (a pretty low hurdle given how congested Tysons is), they may be willing to spend some money and take some chances on PRT. There’s lots of private sector dollars in this area, which has more office space than downtown DC, so you may not have to depend on public funding. I believe PRT would complement, and make more feasible, a redevelopment plan to improve walkability in Tysons. As long as auto traffic volumes as high as they are, the landscape will continue to be dominated by parking and wide roads. Even in the short run, just putting PRT into the current development pattern would get a lot more people walking, since a majority of the buildings in Tysons will not have their own station. Get significant numbers of affluent people on foot and the political support for walkable redevelopment will grow." - anonymous local expert.

  • "Tysons is a great location for a PRT circulator as there is no way for a rubber-tired circulator in mixed street traffic to attract any appreciable ridership. Tysons is completely pedestrian-hostile." Senior transportation consultant who bid on the Tysons Circulator Study RFP. 

  • Washington Examiner, "Among the stumbling blocks is securing land in the path of the Tysons Circulator, which will be one subject of the Tysons Circulator Study." Leonard Wolfenstein, Fairfax County DOT long range planning, "Right of way is going to be a significant Issues."  Streetcar, LRT, and APM have significant ROW issues. PRT does not. PRT can even be cantilevered off of new buildings.

  • "We've concocted a system where local trips take an auto. That's our biggest tragedy. Streetcars, such as those used in Portland's Pearl District, and elevated people movers, like those in downtown Miami, are moving people from rail stations to their final destinations. But a new concept, PRT, may help revolutionize urban transportation, providing a cost-effective way to get people from train stations to where they need to go." - Peter Calthorpe, co-founder, Congress for New Urbanism.

  • One of the advantages of a PRT network "is that it offers a lot of flexibility. It's much less expensive than traditional transit. It doesn't serve the same needs as high-speed rail or BART metro. It's a complement to those systems," Laura Stuchinksy, Sustainability Officer, City of San Jose Department of Transportation.

  • "All the advantages of New Urbanism - its compact land saving density, its walkable mix of uses, and its integrated range of housing opportunities - would be supported and amplified by a circulation system that offers fundamentally different choices in mobility and access. Smart Growth and new Urbanism have begun the work of redefining America's twenty-first century development paradigms. Now it is time to redefine the circulation armature that supports them. It is short sighted to think that significant changes in land-use and regional structure can be realized without fundamentally reordering our circulation system. We've been developing TOD without the T for far too long.  PRT is the T." - Peter Calthorpe.

PRT is Faster than a Car. Trip time from Freddie Mac ( 8000 Jones Branch Dr.) to Metro Stop #2 (Tysons Blvd & Chain Bridge Rd - Tysons Corner Center):

  • PRT: 3 minutes (including 20 second average wait time)

  • Driving: 7 minutes. Include driving 0.9 miles in Tysons traffic plus moderate Tysons parking hassle

  • Circulator bus: 15 minutes. Makes multiple stops (a "milk run"). Circulators are usually a bit faster than streetcar.

  • Streetcar: 17.5 minutes (6.5 min average wait time, 11 minute 1.4 mile trip @ 8 min/per mile [jogging speed])

120 years ago, streetcar transit was a brand new technology, providing faster, better, and cheaper local transit than the alternatives. Starting in 1888, streetcars changed the way cities were built. Likewise, PRT is a brand new technology, providing faster, better, and cheaper transit than current alternatives. Conventional local transit serves narrow strips at a slow pace. Non-stop, faster-than-a-car PRT serves two-dimensional areas. Cities are two-dimensional areas, not narrow strips. A PRT system can put all Tysons workers and residents within a 300 meter walk of a PRT station; conventional local transit will serve only a small fraction of that many people. At the Congress for New Urbanism 2005 Conference, Peter Calthorpe said, "One of my pet peeves is that we've been dealing with 19th Century transit technology. We can do better. We can have ultra light elevated transit systems with lightweight vehicles. Because the vehicles are lighter, the system will use less energy. If you think about what you'd want from the ideal transit technology, it's PRT: a) stations right where you are, within walking distance, b) no waiting."


Media Coverage of PRT for Tysons:

  • The last mile in Tysons Corner: PRT by Steve Offutt, http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=5181. "Instead of waiting until Tysons' very long-term [$165M per mile] fixed-guideway transit is built, Tysons could become a visionary community by building and implementing a state-of-the-art PRT system at the beginning."   

City planning theory applied to Tysons and how to transform Tysons


1. The Tysons Circulator Study should focus on providing very high level-of-service. 


Some key Tysons Circulator Study “use cases” are as follows:

  • It’s 500’ as the crow flies from SAIC at 1710 SAIC Drive to Panera Bread (0.4 mile drive) for lunch in the Pike Seven Shopping Center. People currently drive this, rather than walk. How does the Circulator make this connection?

  • It’s 800’ as the crow flies from BAE Systems, 8201 Greensboro Dr to the Tysons Galleria Legal Seafoods (0.6 mile drive) for lunch. People currently drive this, rather than walk. How does the circulator make this connection?


These same questions arise for new residents in condos. How do they get to Starbucks without a car?


A key consideration for the effectiveness of a circulator stems from "value-of-time." A tech worker earning $100K per year and working 40 hours per week has a value-of-time while working of $50 per hour. During that worker’s commute, value of time is only $25/hour. The scarce lunch hour (now often 40 minutes or less) uniquely has the highest value-of-time, $100/hour. The measure of a transformative circulator is whether it will attract ridership during lunchtime. In the US, there are no suburban circulators that meet this test. (Some high ridership bus circulators can be found here: http://www.cities21.org/tdm2.htm#Shuttle). Tysons won’t transform without being effective for non-commute trips.


Per the above paragraph's value-of-time argument, the Washington Post January 3 snippet makes sense: Headline: "There's no free ride: Tysons Connector shuts down" Monday, January 3, 2011 Another experiment has failed to get cars off the road in Tysons Corner. The area's free midday shuttle bus -- the Tysons Connector -- shut down Dec. 30. After one year of operation, ridership was not sufficient to meet minimum goals to continue the service, which was operated by Fairfax County and funded by the metropolitan Washington airports authority. Link


2. PRT enables increased walkability. Congress for New Urbanism co-founder Peter Calthorpe is a regional planning and transit-oriented-development expert. Calthorpe believes PRT is a transformative catalyst. Calthorpe is pro-pedestrian, pro-livability, and pro-PRT, and he sees the three being complementary.


PRT provides a way to hop over the currently pedestrian-hostile Tysons arterial streets so that pedestrians can access the walkable zones. Over time, more and more zones will become walkable, but PRT can provide an immediate increase in pedestrians, by eliminating the need for a car. How pedestrian-hostile are Tysons arterials? Grannies with wheeled shopping carts literally risk their lives trying to make jay-walked, mid-street crossings on Leesburg Pike (with a teeny median providing scant protection when half-way across). PRT is the catalyst that allows the current walkable area within Tysons to expand over time.


Debunking 1890’s era streetcar for Tysons: US daily ridership 









Streetcar System Name




New Orleans


RTA Streetcars






Portland Streetcar






Memphis RTA Trolley






South Lake Union Streetcar






TECO Line Streetcar




Little Rock


River Rail Streetcar






Kenosha Transit




Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_light_rail_systems_by_ridership

1890's-era streetcars are too slow:

Typical streetcars provide an average speed of 7-12 mph for local-stop service (6.5 mph from a separate analysis) - jogging speed. Streetcars are further slowed long waiting time - headways are 13 minutes during peak hour in Portland. The streetcar speed is often exceeded by ordinary local-stop bus services. One clear speed-and-reliability benefit of the bus is intrinsic to the technology: Buses have the physical ability to go around obstructions that occur in their lane, while the streetcar is stuck behind them. (see: http://www.humantransit.org/2009/07/streetcars-an-inconvenient-truth.html, http://web.cecs.pdx.edu/~monserec/courses/urbantrans/projects/9A_presentation_2007.ppt, http://portlandtransport.com/archives/2005/07/how_fast_is_tha.html).

Recent Automated People Mover (APM) Costs


Yr Open


Capital Cost


Las Vegas Monorail 





JFK AirTrain





Atlanta Airport ConRAC





DFW SkyLink





Dulles AeroTrain

Late 2009




Calculations and references: http://www.cities21.org/HeavyAPMmonorailCosts.xls 


Although APMs represent "proven technology," these projects come with their own hair-raising risks. The Las Vegas Monorail has had numerous instances of unscheduled system shutdown. One shutdown was seven days long. The Las Vegas Public Private Partnership credit rating was downgraded. Ridership is less than 50% of forecast. The Las Vegas Phase II expansion was rejected by the Federal Transit Administration. In addition, San Francisco Airport's APM had a $5.5M crash. 


APMs are Eyesores

APMs are massive, ugly elevated structures that block out the sun. Measuring cross section, they block out 30' of sun. PRT is more suited to blending in with Tysons surroundings, with a grid guideway that lets sunlight through, blocking out less than two cross-sectional feet of sun:



APM cross section                                      PRT low-sunlight-occlusion grid guideway



American Light Rail Systems - cost per mile (From Tom Rubin, July 2009)




Background Information, Links, etc

1. PRT System Design Notes

For discussion of PRT design to transform major office centers, please see: Major Activity Center PRT Circulator Design: Hacienda Business Park. Transportation Research Record #2006 (TRB 1/07). Published as part of U.S. EPA's “Transforming Office Parks into Transit Villages” study. http://www.cities21.org/TRB_PRT_HBP.pdf - 4.4MB. ABSTRACT: The design of a comprehensive mobility system for a suburban San Francisco East Bay Area office park exposes a number of new transit circulator implementation challenges. Original system design perspectives are provided regarding:

  • “Horizontal mixed use” and how resident out-commuters will generate more trips than employee in-commuters.

  • PRT station placement challenges with office park “superblocks”

  • Design methodology to allocate PRT stations to workers and residents

  • Ideal office park characteristics for PRT alignments

  • Problems with generating too much PRT circulator ridership solved by semi-independent loops

  • Multimodal transit hubs at the edges of the PRT alignment

  • PRT alignment “style choices”

  • The need for folding grocery carts (and other solutions) when the car is left at home

Question: Where should PRT stations go in Tysons? Where can we find groups of 1,000 or more workers/residents/shoppers within a walkable superblock?  Is 300 meters a reasonable walking radius for Tysons workers? (PRT systems can sometimes blanket an area even with only 150 or 200 meter walking radius.) The goal of PRT stations is to avoid having to have pedestrians walk across dangerous arterial streets (don't get me started about Leesburg Pike). As the land use is transformed, islands of new urbanist walkability spread out from PRT stations.


2. Tysons Corner Information and Planning Studies

2A. Tysons plan worries developers with property not near planned Metro stations - Washington Post, April 26, 2010:


2B. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tysons_Corner,_Virginia. 4.9 square miles. Daytime population of 100,000. Classic "edge city."

2C. http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpz/tysonscorner/

2D. http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpz/tysonscorner/drafts/tysons_strawman_02062009.pdf has four pages about circulators, including the map below.  It is straightforward to create PRT system to match the four circulators, though it is limiting to force the routes to follow roads. PRT can easily cut through the middle of super blocks, placing stations close to buildings.  The straw man indicates that circulation will initially be provided by shuttle buses, to be replaced by a fixed-guideway system when feasible. 

2E. http://www.dullesmetro.com/

2F. Some folks are fighting the elevated Metro alignment: http://www.tysonstunnel.org/images/boards/TysonsTunnel_ElevatedPhotos.pdf . They point out that the elevated part is 60 or 70 feet high in places (plenty of room for PRT to go under).