Rob Means dreams of revolutionizing Milpitas’ public transit by creating an environmentally-friendly track system to whisk people to destinations in small vehicular pods. But getting others to share that dream is tough.
In 2019, Means, founder and secretary of LoopWorks, pitched Milpitas’ mayor and City Council on the concept of personal rapid transit (PRT), a system of electric elevated guideways transporting small vehicles that fit up to four riders.
Even a relatively short track could help commuters easily access the local BART station and reduce congestion near the Great Mall, Means said. What’s more, other Bay Area jurisdictions are toying with similar personal rapid transit proposals.
Milpitas ultimately said no thanks. Since then, Means has tried to finance the project himself by going to climate change-oriented foundations for grant money. But he’s had little luck.
“I haven’t been encouraged by the response from foundations yet,” Means told San José Spotlight, adding he will likely approach private investors next. “There are quite a few investment outfits that are looking for climate-solving solutions as longer-term investments.”
Means became interested in personal rapid transit while researching light electric bicycles and vehicles. He believes Milpitas is an ideal place to install a PRT system, noting that pedestrians and cyclists face numerous obstacles in the city such as rail lines and expressways.
The concept of personal rapid transit has caught on in a few cities, including in the Bay Area. Means said Contra Costa County is developing a system that uses small vehicles and guideways, but it’s mostly on the ground, not elevated. San Jose is also in the process of considering several possible PRT concepts for its airport connector with Diridon Station.
For Milpitas, Means envisions building a 4-mile test loop connecting 12 local stations for a cost of $60 million. He says riders won’t be charged fees for the first several years. Means believes traveling quickly and with relatively little company will appeal to many commuters.
“Having nonstop, electric travel—it makes so much sense from so many engineering perspectives,” Means said. “It makes sense for people (too) because they don’t like waiting.”
Milpitas Mayor Rich Tran is dubious that his city can afford to operate the kind of PRT system Means proposes.
“I think like any type of public transportation system, PRT requires a lot of funding,” he told San José Spotlight. “The maintenance costs and operational costs, for a city of our size, we simply do not have the funds to take on this concept.”
One of LoopWorks’ goals is to help commuters with the last mile—getting to and from commuter hubs like BART stations and their front doors. Tran claims this isn’t a significant need in Milpitas.
“The last mile doesn’t apply much to the vast majority of our residential neighborhoods,” Tran said. He added that LoopWorks would have to contend with building over significant obstacles, such as pipelines.
Means wants Milpitas’ PRT system to be owned and operated by the community. The LoopWorks website lays out ways people can become members with voting privileges by donating money or property easements to the company.
Some transit advocates are equally skeptical of personal rapid transit systems. Monica Mallon, founder of Turnout4Transit and San José Spotlight columnist, said PRT systems require significant construction and maintenance costs. She noted that LoopWorks would probably need a control center and maintenance facility somewhere in Milpitas, which would be difficult to acquire.
“Unless they’re privately funded, I think they’re not very feasible,” Mallon told San José Spotlight, adding that she doesn’t see the point of diverting funding that could go toward proven high-capacity transit projects, such as finishing the BART extension or extending Caltrain electrification to Gilroy.
There are some local stakeholders who believe in the personal rapid transit project. Tiffany Vuong, a former candidate for Milpitas City Council, recently joined LoopWorks’ board as a community representative. Vuong told San José Spotlight she believes personal rapid transit would be a significant boon to commuters in Milpitas.
“Over here, our buses don’t come very often,” Vuong said. “I think PRT would be a really attractive alternative to driving for folks who want to beat the traffic or just can’t drive.”