In surveys of things people love to hate, traffic usually comes close to the top. That’s a complaint Beijingers are only too familiar with – the Chinese capital recently won the dubious honour of having the world’s most aggravating commute (in a ranking of leading international cities). And China’s traffic woes are only set to get worse as millions more country folk migrate to urban life.
But relief may not be far off, thanks to a truly original homegrown innovation.
China has a long history of invention (see WiC75, Talking Point). But for a couple of centuries its instincts fell fallow. In more recent times it has become much more associated with cheap goods than innovative products.
Step forward the ‘straddle bus’ (aka the ‘elevated bus’ – local media has yet to settle on an agreed name). The concept is disarmingly simple: 4.5 metres tall (so, similar to a British double-decker) the bus might best be likened to a tram on stilts. Because it ‘straddles’ two lanes, cars are able pass through the tunnel space below it.
It sounds like a great idea, and one for which no obvious parallel exists in the West.
The vehicle’s creator, Song Youzhou, thinks it could cut traffic by as much as 30%, with each bus able to carry 1,400 commuters at up to 80km/h. Given Beijing’s concerns about energy efficiency, it doesn’t hurt that the designs also call for power recharging from solar panels positioned on elevated bus stops along the route.
But the price tag is what’s really attractive to city governments. In theory at least, it should cost just Rmb50 million ($7 million) per kilometre to build a straddle bus line. That’s a tenth of what it would cost for a comparable stretch of subway line (helped by no tracks and no tunnelling). That could also mean that a straddle bus network can be built three times as fast.
The downside? The straddle bus lines can only be operated on three-lane roads, which limits their range to major thoroughfares (the third lane is required for lorries to be able to pass around the bus without incident).
But that still leaves a huge potential for the new technology. “If things go smoothly the bus is expected to hit the road by the end of next year,” predicts Song, chairman of Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment Company.
State-owned train maker China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corporation is also planning to build a prototype, and Beijing’s municipal government has ordered a 9km section of line built for a trial run next July.
If it works, the first ‘straddle bus’ line will then be extended to Beijing’s international airport. And if Song gets his way, you could soon be seeing them criss-crossing cities all over the country. Shijiazhuang, in Hebei Province, and Wuhu, in Anhui, have also applied to obtain financing for straddling bus systems, Song said.
A lot of the technology now being utilised in China has been ‘borrowed’ from the West. But Chinese researchers are increasingly keen to improve on it, as well as strike out on their own. Measuring the success of these initiatives is difficult (with disagreement over how to interpret data showing growth in areas like patent registrations and R&D spend). But the general trend can only be for more Chinese investment in new technology, given how much the country needs inventive solutions. A fast-urbanising population is creating conditions in which innovation is a requirement, rather than a luxury. Don’t be surprised to see more inventors like Song in coming years.
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