The future of transportation arrived in San Jose via a conference centered on automated, sustainable forms of public transit for the region and beyond.
The 2023 Podcar City transit innovation conference took place Friday at San Jose City Hall, where about 100 representatives from transit organizations, companies and municipal governments from around the world gathered to discuss these burgeoning technologies.
“Podcars,” or “personal rapid transit,” is a type of mass transportation that typically includes automated, low-capacity vehicles moving along some type of guide. The goal is to create a more eco-friendly and sustainable solution in the wake of worsening traffic congestion and other issues with existing public transit, such as inaccessibility and rising costs.
This is the 15th time this conference has been held since debuting in 2007 and the fourth in Silicon Valley. Ron Swenson, director of the International Institute of Sustainable Transportation, said he’s glad the city has been engaging with the latest technology trends. The institute is one of several U.S. organizers that brought the conference to San Jose.
“There’s suddenly real momentum or several people (and) groups that are getting very serious,” Swenson told San José Spotlight.
The event began with an address by Mayor Matt Mahan, who said transit is an important factor for developing livable high-density urban communities.
“There’s a lot of potential. A lot of the building blocks are in place. But we need innovators like all of you to help us figure out how people are going to get around,” Mahan said in his address.
Multiple companies have created different versions of these types of automated transit. One such project that will soon be coming to San Jose is Glydways’ autonomous transit system, which will connect Diridon Station to San Jose Mineta International Airport. Earlier this year, the San Jose City Council approved an initial study of the project presented by Glydways and Plenary Americas, a public infrastructure developer. Glydways had a display at the conference, presenting its “Glydcars” and detailing the system’s development.
Among the 10 conference sessions was a panel on new forms of automated mobility coming to various communities. Brian Stanke, project manager for the city’s Diridon Airport Connector, spoke of the importance of these solutions being cost effective, with hopes to expand transit services to more residents in the future.
“On the surface, this project is connecting two transportation hubs (and) making it easy to get to use transit,” Stanke told San José Spotlight. “But on a deeper scale … we’re trying to find a methodology of both project management, wise financing and technology to build way more transit faster, and be able to operate, too.”
Stanke said the airport connector project will be going back to the city council in mid-2024 with the feasibility study. By 2026, he said the project’s team aims to present the design alternatives to city leaders. He added this was his first time attending the conference and that it was “inspiring” to hear about new projects launching soon—when just a few years ago they didn’t have prototypes ready.
Jim Davis, a government consultant and former Sunnyvale councilmember, has been to Podcar City conferences in the past. He noted more attendees this year, and said these kind of transit alternatives can provide a more time- and cost-efficient solution to connect communities across Silicon Valley.
“There’s more interest (in this technology), there’s more information being provided,” Davis told San José Spotlight. “There’s more of it for people to consume and digest and make it happen.”
The future of transit requires constant innovation, according to Karen Philbrick, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute and San José Spotlight columnist. She said transportation users have diverse backgrounds and needs, and emphasized it’s important to think about new transit technologies and communicate those possibilities with the public.
“In my opinion, transportation is the most vital service that we have,” Philbrick told San José Spotlight. “It connects people, it connects places, it connects communities. In the absence of that connection … people suffer.”