Thursday, August 5, 2010

China's brilliant straddling bus

When you’re battling your way to work this morning, feeling like a boiled owl and spitting feathers, do you hope that the men in suits in the Ministry of Transportation are bursting with innovations to help you out? Or do you suspect they plan more speed cameras, taxes, bicycle lanes and phased traffic lights to further frustrate you? And will you be selling your car to buy a bike to help them out?

It’s not the same everywhere. New transport systems peak, so historians tell us, after about 50 years. The canal, the railway and, latterly, the car all went into decline at half a century. Motorway building has reached its capacity unless we want to concrete over the countryside.

But something new always comes along. Usually it’s the emerging, technologically strong nations that supply it, as the Victorians did in their heyday. America appears too introverted to oblige, scratching at its own financial wounds, obsessed by big oil and politics.

The emerging powerhouse of the East is maybe where to look.

Since spending time in China a few years ago I am fascinated by this diverse, contradictory, dynamic, overwhelming continent. The dichotomy between old and new, rich and impoverished, communism and a modernist version of freedom makes this country, that covers an area the size of the USA, equally frightening and fascinating. To me, we seem like Lilliputians prodding Gulliver and hoping the strings will continue to tie him down.

Previously they built the first magnetic levitation train in Shanghai. The Maglev only runs 30k, shuttling passengers from the Airport to downtown Shanghai in eight minutes at 430kph, but it was hugely innovative. No track, no wheels, just electro-magnets. I featured it in my book, The Deadline Murders.

Now the Chinese have stepped up the transport game once more, this time in Beijing. When faced with too much traffic, a need to widen the road system and way too much pollution they wanted an idea to carry more commuters, knowing it was impossible to dig an underground system. Enter The Straddling Bus, a design to get more commuters to work with less emissions and less traffic.

It’s blindingly simple. Instead of widening the roads, they are building a trackway either side. Placed in it will be the wheels of a series of these straddling buses that each carry 1200 passengers 4 m above the roadway. Each allows the normal traffic to pass by underneath. The bus creates an arch across the roadway, allowing vehicles under 2m to pass through. The bus stops are set high and the commuters enter and depart from the roofline. And it’s run by electricity and solar energy. The first track will be laid in Beijing’s Mentougou District at the end of this year.

I think it’s brilliant Chinese inventiveness. Tell me we are working on something that clever?

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