Bus on stilts to beat Beijing gridlock



By Olivia Chung

HONG KONG

– Chinese entrepreneur Song Youzhou reckons he has found a way for commuters to leapfrog the horrendous traffic jams that increasingly bring his country’s cities to a grinding halt.

Song’s solution is a 43-meter long “straddling bus” that runs astride the road on tracks, allowing it pass over vehicles underneath while an upper level carries as many as 1,200 passengers. A test-run of his futuristic vehicle – dubbed the “3D Fast Bus” – is planned for early next year on a track to be built in Beijing’s Mentougou district. China South Locomotive & Rolling Stock Corporation, one of the country’s top two state-owned rolling stock manufacturers, will make the prototype vehicle.

Successful implementation cannot come soon enough for

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Road construction brought thousands of vehicles to a standstill on a section of the Beijing-Zhangjiakou highway, with the already near fortnight-long gridlock at one point extending as far as 100 kilometers from Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to Beijing. The jam won’t ease before the middle of next month, AP reported, citing Zhang Minghai, director of Zhangjiakou city’s Traffic Management Bureau.

Three decades of fast economic growth have transformed China from a nation of bicycle-users into the world’s largest car market, overtaking the United States for that honor last year. The number of vehicles sold annually has risen 45% since 2008 to 13.6 million, and in the first half of this year auto sales jumped 48% from a year earlier to just over 9 million, according to China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

Beijing’s commuters are served by nine subway lines and hundreds of bus-only lanes, but increasing numbers of the city’s 17 million population are using cars. More than 4.4 million vehicles navigate the frequently clogged streets, with more taking to the road each month – 52,000 in July alone, according to the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau. Traffic seizures in the city now last as long as five hours on average, up from 3.5 hours in 2008.

There is little chance of those numbers decreasing. Rising earnings and 10%-plus annual economic growth are putting car-ownership within reach of ever more workers, while the auto industry, with all its attendant manufacturing elements, plays a greater and greater role within the economy.

Hence the appeal of Song’s straddling bus, the latest in a series of innovative proposals from his company, Shenzhen Huashi Future, that target problems, such as parking, which cars present in the urban environment.

Beijing is expected to be the first city to put the 3D Fast Bus in place, while Shijiazhuang, in northern Hebei province, and Wuhu, in Anhui province on the east coast, are already seeking financing to establish such a bus system, and Luzhou, in southwest Sichuan province, has expressed interest in the project, Song told Asia Times Online. Since a model was shown at the Beijing International high-tech Expo at the end of May, interest has also come from India, Argentina, Mexico and the United States, he said.

An Argentine government delegation is to visit Beijing this weekend for discussions with Shenzhen Huashi, Song said. China and Argentina last month announced a co-invested US$10 billion railway project, including purchases of high-speed trains for a planned high-speed railway in the Latin American nation.

Officials from India’s Transport Ministry have invited Song and his company for a meeting in Beijing on September 16, and Mexico is to sign a letter of intent on technical co-operation for the bus early next month, which would lead to a similar project being built in Mexico, Song said. An American company will also sign a letter of intent for the bus, according to Song, without giving details.

The 3D Fast Bus will be powered by roof-mounted solar panels, with back-up from power points at bus stops. The vehicles, with passengers traveling at 40 kilometers an hour more than 2 meters above the ground, will run on existing roads that will require only a few amendments, including installation of track on each side and high platforms for boarding and alighting. That means it will take only one year to build a 40km track for the buses, compared with about three years for an equivalent underground railway.

It will also be cheaper, with 1km of the bus system costing an estimated 50 million yuan (US$7.3 million), including 28 million yuan for the bus

itself, about one tenth the cost of underground rail equivalent. The 3D bus could replace about 40 conventional buses, saving 860 tonnes of fuel annually, Song said.

Zhang Wenbo, director of Mentougou’s Science and Technology Institute, said progress in seeking central government approval for the pilot project will be announced on November 1. Several investors, including fund companies, are lined up as potential backers for the project, he told Asia Times Online.

“I do believe the Fast Bus project will gain approval because money and infrastructure are not a problem, and whether it can make a profit will depend on how it is run,” he said.

If the 3D Fast Bus does not prove a success, Song has plenty more ideas – his more than 120 domestic and international patents include devices as varied as wedding poppers, a life vest that automatically warms when touching water, and a gun that fires a net for possible use in catching rioters.

Olivia Chung is a senior Asia Times Online reporter.

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