Trans­porta­tion dilem­mas, and the wild ideas to solve them

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

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

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