Technology

Straddling the future of transit

A new solution to transit woes literally puts the bus above the automobile.

When Disneyland installed a monorail system in the California amusement park in 1959, it was a sightseeing attraction in Tomorrowland — the theme park depicting the future. It was the first single–rail transportation system in North America, and though Walt Disney envisioned it as having practical use, many initially typecast the monorail as a ride rather than a viable way of getting around.

The 3D Express Coach, a bus designed by a China–based company to move above traffic, is conjuring a similar reaction. Dubbed the “Straddling Bus” by North American media, it looks as futuristic as the monorail must once have, and has experts similarly questioning its functionality while praising its innovation.

A prototype of the bus, which will be created early next year, will be 4.5 metres high, allow for two lanes of cars to pass beneath it, and fit 1,200 people. The company, Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment, will do a test run in Beijing’s Mentougou District and are currently looking for U.S. manufacturers.

It’s hard to imagine the straddler travelling down a street in L.A., the most congested city in North America, but Patricia Cuttell–Busby, who lectures in the urban planning department at Dalhousie University, says that’s because North American culture is less innovative. “In transportation, we tend to be stuck on thinking in terms of models that already exist,” says Busby, who just hosted a session on improving Halifax’s mobility as part of a four–day symposium. “To see something that really looks at the movement of people and uses the existing road system is an interesting idea.”

The bus can run either on rails or wheels outside of car lanes, and will go on average 40 km per hour, powered by electricity and roof–mounted solar panels. It could reduce traffic jams in Beijing by 30% on main routes according to the designer, Youzhou Song. He says it could replace up to 40 conventional buses, potentially saving the 860 tonnes of fuel they collectively consume annually, and preventing 2,640 tonnes of carbon emissions, according to The New York Times.

Sounds too good to be true? Jeff Speck, an architectural designer and one of the authors of urban planning bible Suburban Nation, is skeptical of its safety in high–speed traffic but applauds the company for trying to improve collective transportation. “Any proposal that literally or figuratively puts transit above cars is exciting,” he says. “And the more we make transit sexy and not a loser cruiser, the more we can encourage people to take it.”

Public transportation enthusiasts become divided when it comes to which modes are most efficient, but there is a strong bias toward rail–based systems such as subways, and light rail transit (LRT), which are trains that run on electric rails either in separate lanes or with other traffic. Yet two cities that are frequently held up as world–renowned transportation models use bus–based systems: Curitiba, Brazil, which uses only buses and was the first country to put them in separate lanes in 1974, and Bogotá, Colombia, which also has separate lanes, as well as progressive policies such as banning cars during certain hours.

Hunter Tura, who is CEO of Toronto–based design firm Bruce Mau Design and is currently working with Santa Monica’s bus system to improve its efficiency, loves the idea for the bus. From 2005–08 he lived in Beijing, and said in the downtown core of the city, it could take an hour to move a few kilometres. Last year, the global consulting firm McKinsey estimated that by 2015 more than 220 Chinese cities will have more than one million people. “There are 25 cities in China with populations larger than Toronto,” Tura says. “In almost every place, transportation is crushing them.”

So will the straddling bus be the new monorail, which gained momentum slowly as Seattle adopted the system in 1962, followed by Tokyo in 1964? Lee Parsons, founding partner of the planning and economic consulting firm Malone Given Parsons, who also sits on the board of directors for Metrolinx, says there are definitely parallels. Whether or not the model is practical, it encourages out–of–box thinking, which he says is generally lacking in the Canadian transportation system. “Even if the prototype doesn’t go anywhere, they may learn lessons that could be applied elsewhere,” says Parsons. “That’s the thing about innovation. You never know where it could go.”