A Chinese public transit design was recently brought to my attention. The “innovation” is that the bus is also a tunnel, such that cars can pass under it on roadways. But I have some concerns.
Some of my concerns are structural. Just how strong does the structure of the buss have to be to support its weight and the forces of its movement? (Note: it’s supposed to carry 1,200 passengers.) Especially with all those openings in the “legs” of the thing? The bus appears to be more of a streetcar in that I see what appear to be rails and streetcar-like wheels (look at the inside of the right leg of the bus, at the bottom right side of the image). What happens when the thing derails? In case of derailment, how long will it take to clear the road, and what kind of traffic chaos might accrue in the interim? And if, as the article suggests, the thing could run on conventional tires, what happens when it gets a flat, or if the road is in poor repair? And the notion of it automatically following coloured lines painted on the road is pure vapourware; no intelligent vehicle has yet been constructed that can not be very easily fooled; and something as big as this bus is not something you want to fool into driving off the road. It is also suggested that human drivers could be used. Can you imagine the liability insurance?
How do passengers get on and off? The doors look like they’re at least two metres off the ground – this suggests special platforms and stations will be needed. These platforms will need escalators and elevators in addition to steps. They will take up presumably valuable real estate on sidewalks, and will be far more costly to build and maintain than the kind of bus stops one typically sees in cities today.
What about turning corners? Given its size, it’s not clear to me that it could navigate any curves but at custom-made intersections. Does that mean we have to design the city and street system to accommodate the bus? That sounds a little backwards to me. How do cars manage if they’re under this thing when it needs to turn?
The article I read explains that the bus is green because it uses electric power. But that’s one of great myths of sustainable transportation. I mean, where does the electricity come from? If it comes from a coal-fired power station – well, ‘null said there. (Note: in 2007, it was reported that China uses coal for 69% of its primary energy, compared to 11% in Canada.)
Finally, if the end game is to displace cars for public transit (and I think it should be), then this does nothing to discourage car traffic – indeed, it makes it easier for cars to use the road. And while we’re on the subject, look at the cars on the road near and under the bus. They look like exotic sports cars and SUVs to me. Isn’t that the wrong message to send?
In other words, I don’t see any evidence here of any real system design; that is, this vehicle has to fit into a setting of some sort. If it’s going to do any good at all, it has to fit well. Given even just the fairly obvious problems I’ve indicated here, I cannot see how this vehicle will fit well into an urban setting, except, possibly, in very limited and specially constructed situations. At which point it really isn’t “mass” transit anymore, and the cost of the system – especially it’s maintenance – becomes ever more significant.
To be fair, I can see one alternative explanation here: bad reporting. It may be that the person who wrote the piece just doesn’t understand that extolling the benefits of a single machine or device is not enough to truly appreciate it’s advantages. It may in fact be that the vehicle’s designers have dealt with all the problems I’ve indicated – any of which is enough to be a potential show-stopper – and that it just wasn’t reported. (And yes, I did check for other articles. There’s an article on chinahush.com that reads more like a Hollywood pitch for some new sci-fi movie: ultrasonics and laser signals and new driving regulations and special stoplights and so on. While there has clearly been some thought given to the problems of running this thing, the complexity it implies – and I would call it very complex – becomes in itself a stone around its own neck.)
So while I’m happy to admit that this is certainly an interesting and creative design, I’m not sure it’s innovative. Innovations, by definition, must be useful. I’m just not convinced this vehicle would be useful. And before I decide whether I’m for or against this thing, I’d want to know a lot more about how it’s supposed to fit into its target environment. And so should you.