If you’ve ever been to Morgantown, you’ve probably seen an elevated roadway snaking around the city, with tiny people movers clad in blue and gold traversing back and forth. That’s the Morgantown PRT, short for Personal Rapid Transit system. It’s essentially a network of small trams that take you from the station you arrive at directly to your desired destination, with no stops in between. It’s unlike any other transit system in America, and perfectly reflects the optimism for infrastructure and wild ambition of planners and officials in the 1970s.
It’s kind of funny, but it feels like no one outside of the field thought about urban planning ten years ago. But as I began studying the field in college, the New Urbanist memes for Transit-Oriented Teens (NUMTOTs) Facebook group proliferated, YouTube channels like City Beautiful and Not Just Bikes exploded in popularity—urban planning almost became… en vogue, in a sense, and I felt like I was at the ground floor. But my interest in cities went way back. I remember when I was a kid, I would just read random city Wikipedia articles, learning about their history, how they developed, declines, rebirths, weird random facts that you’d only know if you were from there (or if you were a weirdo like me reading the article).
Somewhere along the way, I stumbled on the Morgantown page, probably when I was 12 or something. When I read about the PRT, I thought it was the coolest thing. It really does feel like a utopian vision of what transit can be—almost like those people mover tunnels in Futurama—where you don’t have to deal with the fourteen random stops between you and your destination or sit stuffed in a train or bus with 50 other people.
For Morgantown, it’s an ideal solution—the terrain there is difficult, to say the least. The roads are narrow, the downtown is congested as is. Parts of the WVU campus are miles from downtown. Morgantown tried a bus system before, and it presented a logistical nightmare. The elevated tracks and direct trips make it perfect for students to get from class to class, from Milan Puskar Stadium to the restaurants and bars downtown. But PRT didn’t catch on nationwide. It was expensive to build and remains difficult to maintain—because it’s the only of its kind, replacement parts are tough to come by. Reliability has decreased in the past decades, as the system shows its age. The PRT, when it’s working at peak efficiency, is a nicer experience than most public transit, but its not so much better that it can justify the expense, especially in an age where there’s low appetite for high-cost infrastructure.
I remember I was driving back to Blacksburg from visiting a friend in Pittsburgh, and because I was making better time than I expected, I stopped in Morgantown, just to check it out, see the sights. Make no mistake, the town itself was no Blacksburg (few places are), but I remember driving on Beechurst Avenue—right on the shore of the Monongahela—under the PRT elevated track, looking up, and just thinking to myself, it’s cool that this exists. It’s cool that somewhere along the way, a group of people had the ambition and wherewithal to create something new and unique, in Morgantown of all places.
Anyway, if you’re in Morgantown for the game, hop on a car, and tell me how it is in the comments. What kind of riot gear are you planning to bring to the game? Anyone got a spare couch? I’d like to hear about that too.
Last but not least, Beat WVU.