15 April 2014 — Public transport of the future is likely to be faster and greener. Many cities around the world have public transport infrastructure that’s been in place for over a century, and some radical plans are in the works that will redefine our notion of how we get around. A lot of it sounds like science fiction but these innovations are being developed right now. Indeed, some are already here.
A two-year study by climate change think tank Beyond Zero Emissions has found that a high-speed rail network stretching from Melbourne to Brisbane could be completed by 2025, costing $30 billion less than previous government estimates. The project would generate $7 billion of operating revenue in the year 2030, the report found, despite tickets being cheaper than air travel. This means the scheme’s initial outlay would be repaid by 2040. A network of 21 high-speed rail stations would connect to 12 regional centres, including the central coast, Wagga Wagga, Lismore and Shepparton, meaning that 60 per cent of Australia’s population would live within 50 kilometres of a high-speed rail station. The full length of the rail corridor, from Melbourne to Brisbane, would take five hours 56 minutes to travel, with Melbourne to Sydney taking three hours.
One of the most interesting public transportation concepts for reducing urban congestion, while making use of existing infrastructure, is the Land Airbus straddling bus, a giant car-swallowing bus reportedly set to hit the streets of China. The trick is it travels along rails to enable smaller vehicles to pass underneath. The bus has a high-tech interior that is entered via a glass elevator that drops down at air lift stations. While passengers are getting on and off the vehicle, there is no hold up in traffic – cars just keep going under the bus. Waatch the way it’s designed on YouTube.
Over at Austin, Texas in the US they are developing public transportation pods between buildings, also known as gondolas. The hanging mass transit solution is called The Wire. It’s cheaper than subways and perfect for tight, congested areas. A gondola system could also move up to 10,000 people an hour, which could replace 100 bus trips or 2000 car rides, reducing the amount of pollution in the city.
Another building-to-building people-mover concept is the Maglev Public Transport System. Maglev is short for magnetic levitation, which means that these trains will float over a guide way using the basic principles of magnets to replace the old steel wheel and track trains. The wing-like appendages on each carriage, which attach them to the wires, rotate 360 degrees, enabling them to zip around tight corners. The big difference between a maglev train and a conventional train is that maglev trains do not have an engine — at least not the kind of engine used to pull typical train cars along steel tracks. The engine for maglev trains is rather inconspicuous. Instead of using fossil fuels, the magnetic field created by the electrified coils in the guideway walls and the track propels the train. There have been proposals for Maglev systems in Germany, Switzerland, United Kingdom, China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan and North America.
Over in Israel, they are developing the Hyperloop, a tube system through which pod-like vessels will be propelled in a fashion similar to an air hockey puck. It is supposedly more cost-efficient than travelling down highways as well as more environmentally friendly, and cheaper than flying. The Hyperloop is based on pods that hold 10 passengers, with 10 pods leaving the station every 30 seconds. Travelling at a max speed of 1280 miles an hour (2000 kilometres an hour), they would reach their destination in just a few minutes. The project will be the result of a collaboration between Israel’s Ministry of Transportation, Better Place and Japanese Taigo. The loop will cost some $10 billion. The first trip from Tel Aviv to Eilat is scheduled to take place in July 2015 and is anticipated to take exactly 7:06 minutes. The 344 kilometre trip usually takes just over three-and-a-half hours by car.
In Boston, they’re rolling out a data-driven bus service, which figures out on a daily basis where people are and where they want to go, and then gets them there – nonstop – on luxury buses for just $5-8 a trip. Riders sign up online and the company collects their home and work postcodes, eventually drilling down to specific streets. It also scours the Internet for Foursquare check-ins, tweets and Facebook updates to gauge travel patterns and factors in significant events such as a Red Sox game. A software program crunches the real-time data to anticipate which routes need to be added, using smaller shuttles to serve less popular destinations. With no stops along the way, travel times would be faster.
The British company Reaction Engines Limited is developing Skylon, a super-fast plane that could travel at five times the speed of sound and break out of the Earth’s orbit to travel in outer space. It would be able to take off from any runway in the world, and could bring 300 passengers from London to Sydney in four hours.As well as being capable of reaching Mach 5 for surface to surface transport, these engines allow Skylon to leave the atmosphere and enter orbit. The initial goal is to provide a cargo transport system to carry goods up to space stations by 2022, with intentions to later modify the vehicle to carry passengers.
Another outside-the-box approach to public transport is the Shweeb. It’s a human powered monorail system that uses bicycle pods suspended from tracks. You lie back in a recumbent position for maximum comfort and minimum aerodynamic drag. The hard wheels on the smooth track reduce rolling resistance. Just click through the seven gears and get up to your top speed with very little effort. At the moment, you can ride the Shweeb at Agroventures park in New Zealand where you can reach speeds of up to 50km/h under your own steam.
The big development now in public transport is the development of self-driving cars. And that’s happening right now. As reported here, researchers at the University of New South Wales are working with Australian car-sharing company GoGet to develop an advanced autonomous driving algorithm that could see a new breed of self-driving cars land on Australian shores within 10 years. The Telegraph reports that Induct Technology’s Navia system is now on sale, and test vehicles from Google, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and many others have driven themselves on public roads (under strict supervision). BMW has displayed a car that can “drift” through corners without a driver, while Volvo has announced plans for the world’s first large-scale test of driverless cars. Governments are framing permit legislation to allow the further research of such vehicles on the highways.
But what does that have to do with public transport? As Emily Badger at The Atlantic explains, transit planners are now saying the transit industry needs to promote shared-use autonomous cars as a replacement for transit on many bus routes and for service to persons with disabilities.
But as Badger says, this raises some important questions about the future of public transport. If autonomous cars can one day better perform some of the functions of transit, shouldn’t we let them? Shouldn’t we take the opportunity to focus instead on whatever traditional transit does best in an autonomous-car world? And focus on exactly where and when will it make sense for people to use buses or rail instead of autonomous cars. Furthermore, if autonomous cars come to supplement these services, should transit agencies get into the business of operating them?
As Richard Martin at Forbes points out, this will change the concept of car ownership. To put it bluntly, fewer people will own cars. “People will come to see a vehicle as a service rather than as a possession,’’ Martin writes. “Once transportation is available when you need it and can be summoned by clicking on a smartphone app, owning a car will become a choice rather than a necessity.”
Fewer car owners means fewer emissions and more sustainable cities. What’s certain is that in the megacities of the future, people will be finding new ways to move around the crowded spaces. The United Nations predicts that roughly 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by the year 2030. This is what makes the future of public transport so critical. It’s not science fiction; it’s happening right now.