Why you should care
Because automotive technology is on a roll.
“Can you take me to school today?” my 11-year-old asks, moaning about how she hates sitting in traffic on her school bus. I explain that I don’t have time and that she’ll have to get moving while I’m really thinking, “Hell, no, get out of bed!” The wheels on the bus go round and round, but they also start and stop a lot in suburban school-zone traffic.
Brontë Crouch, from Holywell, Cambridgeshire, has no such complaints. Her ride to college — British high school — in Cambridge was not a bouncy, yellow, exhaust-belching bus. Instead, the 18-year-old rolled gently to school, without stopping for traffic, on an eco-friendly “bus” with leather seats, Wi-Fi and beautiful views of the English countryside. But hers was no everyday bus.
For a truly revolutionary congestion-busting bus, China may be pulling ahead …
Whether they’re red double-deckers offering glimpses of Big Ben or yellow giants handling an estimated 10 billion school rides annually in North America, buses don’t usually come to mind when we think of high-tech transport. After all, American school buses rolling through suburbia don’t look that different from their 1930s counterparts, fuel upgrades aside. But these tried-and-true transporters have some revolutionary cousins that are steering clear of traffic and giving rise to a roundtrip renaissance — from guided and autonomous buses to ones that straddle clogged city streets.
Drivers in East Anglia, England, have long dreaded backups on the A14. The dual carriageway offers two lanes in either direction between the center of the country and its eastern shore, and at peak times it often becomes a parking lot between Huntingdon and Cambridge. A multimodal study investigated how to address congestion with an eye toward sustainability. Rather than simply widening the A14, planners relieved pressure on the carriageway via a $160 billion project called the Busway. After four years of work along a disused railway, the Busway — a roughly 16-mile guided track that opened in 2011 — now transports 3.75 million people a year, according to Graham Hughes, executive director for the economy, transport and environment at the Cambridgeshire County Council. “Traffic has been reduced, new opportunities for travel have been opened up,” he says, noting how the route — fashioned after one built in the 1980s in Essen, Germany — also offers quality cycling and walking paths used daily by thousands.
The buses on this system, the longest of its kind, zip along a rollway that enables drivers to take their hands off the wheel on guided sections. They don’t have to worry about stopping, starting or turning to accommodate oncoming traffic, which helps ensure that “it’s really fast,” says Crouch, who estimates that her commute to school on the busway is three or even four times faster than it would be on the A14. Besides reducing car use, the buses burn biodiesel. “Guided Busways are not a widespread technology around the world,” Hughes notes, “but our view is that it is an appropriate technology for our situation and could be for others.” Cambridge’s success, he says, has led to inquiries and visits by planners from cities around the U.K. and worldwide.
England isn’t alone in helping drivers let go of the wheel. In fact, busing giant Daimler is hitting the gas on technology for semi-driverless buses. This summer, the Stuttgart, Germany-based firm debuted its Mercedes-Benz Future Bus with CityPilot on a 12-mile route in Amsterdam. The bus is designed to travel at up to 43 mph, halt at bus stops and lights, and, luckily for foot traffic, brake for sudden hiccups like pedestrians. Before you run for your car, the buses will still have drivers — they’ll simply have less to do. “The CityPilot leads to a new dimension in urban buses,” says Nada Filipovic, from Mercedes-Benz Omnibus’ product communications team. She notes how the project uses existing driver assistance systems and new technology to provide maximum comfort for drivers, passengers and others on the road. Having just had its first successful run at traffic, Daimler Buses plans to invest roughly $225 million in development over the next four years. By offering smoother driving, buses use less fuel and spew fewer carbon dioxide emissions. Before it can go into mass production, however, it needs to undergo “several million kilometers of testing,” Filipovic says.
For a truly revolutionary congestion-busting bus, China may be pulling ahead, having just taken its TEB-1 lane- and traffic-straddling bus out for a spin. By 2018, the 1,200-passenger TEB, or Transit Elevated Bus, will be a regular feature in the city of Zhoukou in Henan Province, says Yating Yang, marketing manager for TEB. Apart from rolling right over cars to deliver passengers on time and without hassle, the elevated TEB is electric, meaning it has lower carbon emissions than diesel- or gasoline-powered vehicles. And the estimated cost to build it will be one-fifth that of a typical subway, which runs around $100 million per kilometer, according to Yang. She and her colleagues already have signed strategic agreements with government officials for similar systems in northern Chinese cities such as Tianjin, Qinhuangdao and Shenyang.
The snag? Not everyone loves buses, whatever the track or technology. In Cambridge, Hughes admits that some residents occasionally complain that they would have preferred to see the old railway system revived, rather than cored out for the guided Busway. And unlike the yellow bus my daughter rides to school, students using the Busway have to pay. There’s “no real discount at all for students,” Crouch admits. “The train companies do make more of an effort here.” “Driverless” buses and the TEB, meanwhile, require more testing before they can shake up European and Asian public transportation, which they’re aiming to do in the next few years. And that’s not even the biggest challenge, Filipovic says. The hardest bit is getting “clarification of the legal framework for autonomous driving.”
Once they hit the road though, all of these alternatives to tried-and-true buses offer planet-saving, traffic-busting alternatives, any of which would be a surefire way to get my kid fired up about rolling out of bed.