Transportation dilemmas, and the wild ideas to solve them
IT’S fair to say that among those dependent on public transport, buses don’t have a good reputation for turning up on time. So when a model for a sci-fi-looking “straddling bus” capable of gliding over traffic was unveiled in China in May – six years after first being mooted – we can safely say that the hopes of city commuters were, no pun intended, raised.
In the case of the so-called Transit Explore Bus (TEB), however, it seems that potential delays are the least of its troubles. Just one week after a “road test” of the futuristic bus – which, in the words of the Shanghaiist website, proved, “They built it. They actually built it” – reports have emerged in the Chinese media suggesting that not only is the bus’ current manifestation completely unfeasible, but that TEB might even be some kind of elaborate Ponzi scheme.
Such allegations have been indignantly refuted by the inventor Song Youzhou, who told the website Sixth Tone, “We haven’t done anything wrong at all. The latest tests show that the bus design is entirely possible.”
But leaving such murkier allegations aside, the evergrowing list of technical criticisms levelled at the project might seem enough to make Song and his team give up on their radical bus-on-stilts dream.
Detailed most comprehensively by Wired, these include the fact that that the TEB has a ground clearance of just 2.1 metres, meaning only small vehicles will be able to drive under it. It’s also unclear what a car is meant to do if the bus rolls over it when approaching a junction. And, keeping the electric vehicle charged would be a real challenge. On top of this, bridges, lamp posts and road signs would all have to be re-thought.
But perhaps the most cutting criticism of all: Since the TEB runs on tracks, it’s technically not even a bus. It’s a train.
Even the “road test”, in hindsight, was found by local media to be unconvincing. It took place on a 300-metre highway and was hardly equivalent to actual traffic conditions. Was the test just a chance to show that TEB had actually built something? Anything? Playing it down since, the authorities in Qinhuangdao, where the bus was tested, have said the TEB will just be used for tourism rather than major transportation.
As the likelihood of the TEB coming to fruition in any meaningful way crumbles, descending from transportsolution-of-the-future to a folly evocative of that episode of The Simpsons when Springfield gets a monorail, it looks set to join the ranks of other well meaning, but ultimately futile, urban trafficsolving ideas.
Like, for example, the Hyperloop (emphasis on the “hype”), in which pods full of people would in theory be fired down a large tube at speeds of up to 750mph. The concept was first put forward by Elon Musk – the guy behind commercial space travel enterprise SpaceX – in 2013, and since then two companies have been competing to make it a reality: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) and Hyperloop One.
Recently, Hyperloop One put on a demonstration in the Nevada desert, shooting a test sled down a track at 115mph. But as Guardian tech reporter Alex Hern pointed out, while it did represent a step forward, it is a small one, writing, “Linear accelerators are nothing new: They’ve been used in rollercoasters for 20 years and slower versions are already used in metro systems all over the world.” So nothing revolutionary just yet.
If it does come to fruition, it will mean people could travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in just 30 minutes, but – as with commercial space travel – it is still unclear how the project could be economically viable with so many design and development kinks still to be hammered out.
Then there’s SkyTran, a “patented, high speed, low cost, elevated Personal Rapid Transportation system” based in Nasa’s Ames Research Center in California. SkyTran’s design consists of sleek steel and aluminium pods (what is it with pods and the future?) that travel along an elevated maglev track high above the street.
This rapid transit system, developed by NASA engineer Doug Malewicki, would carry two or four people in each pod, with the potential to move them at speeds of up to 155mph. In the case of SkyTran, the argument is that it’s far more economical than building an underground system; the company claims it will cost just US$13 million for every mile of track, compared to $160 million per mile of subway.
Still, it is yet to appear in a city. It was due to launch in Tel Aviv in 2014, and then at the end of 2015. Now the official line is that a demonstration track will be completed at the end of this year. More recently it was announced that Lagos, Nigeria, would get a SkyTran track by 2020. Fingers crossed.
Keeping in mind that most of these suggestions have barely existed beyond the drawing board, perhaps the best new public transport concept to be presented in recent years is the “cat bus”, which appears as a character in the Japanese animated fantasy film My Neighbour Totoro.
The cat bus can fly, it can take passengers to any destination they want – and, well, it’s adorable. And judging by the track record of some other urban transportation ideas doing the rounds, it’s also just as likely to happen. – The Guardian