Is China’s traffic-jam-busting ‘elevated bus’ just a pipe dream?
Experts have questioned the safety and feasibility of the vehicle under development, which aims to reduce road congestion by letting cars pass underneath
China’s “straddling bus”, trumpeted as an innovate idea to solve city traffic jams, is under increasing scrutiny with many questioning whether it is safe or feasible and will ever come into service.
The Transit Elevated Bus, or TEB, grabbed worldwide attention last week after China’s state-run news agency Xinhua published pictures of the vehicle during a test run on a 300-metre track in Qinhuangdao in Hebei province.
The bus is designed to run on rails and rises two metres above the road, allowing cars to pass underneath to ease congestion.
State media, however, have begun to grow cool on the idea with Xinhua suggesting last week the project was an excuse to raise funds rather than create an innovative solution to traffic problems. Experts have also questioned the safety and practicality of the technology.
The company says on its website that the bus-train hybrid is a “revolution” in public transport and “a breakthrough” in advanced manufacturing.
But the South China Morning Post found only a solitary vehicle at the firm’s testing ground in Hebei, sheltered under a blue, iron shed.
The 22 metre-long and eight metre-wide vehicle looks like a fattened Hong Kong double-decker tram with a hollow belly so cars can pass beneath it.
The testing track extends about 300 meters and it would take the bus less than 20 seconds to complete the circuit if, as the company claims, the vehicle can reach speeds of 60km/h.
Sun Zhang, a transportation professor at Tongji University in Shanghai and an expert in urban track transport systems, said it would be difficult for the bus to negotiate turns and motorists driving under it would have their line of sight severely limited, increasing the chance of accidents on the road.
“It can only run on wide and straight roads. In big cities where roads are winding and jammed [with traffic], such roads are in shortly supply,” he said. “The biggest advantage of this project is that its designers have rich imaginations.”
Several young employees were busying hanging up black curtains to prevent bystanders looking at the vehicle when the Post visited the site, but the project has kindled the interest of curious local residents.
Liu Mingli, spent an hour on public transport to visit the site, but was disappointed with what she saw and thought it unlikely the vehicle would prove a solution to urban traffic problems.
“Maybe it can be a tourist spot for our city since so many people are interested in seeing it,” she said.
Tom Li Tie, a Chinese-Malaysian originally from Qinhuangdao, took his nine-year-old son to his hometown in the hope of showing him some of China’s best technology.
But Li said his “pride and excitement have gone completely” after visiting the site.
The bus developer, TEB Technology, has repeatedly declined interview requests from the Post.
A security guard also tried to turn our reporter away from the site.
The idea of a bus to ease road congestion is attractive in China where car ownership is rapidly increasing, along with the number of traffic jams.
China had 172 million cars on the road at the end of last year, with 280 million licensed drivers.
Research by the car-hailing service Didi Chuxing, based on data gathered in 400 Chinese cities, said the average car speed was less than 25 km/h in the first half of this year.
The idea of an elevated bus to ease increasing congestion has been around for years.
The same team, headed by a self-taught technician Song Youzhou, displayed a model of a similar design of bus at a hi-tech expo in Beijing in 2010.
Song, who has also invented “safe fireworks for parties” and “smart parking system”, got the idea for the vehicle after he saw gantry cranes, used at ports to handle containers, he said in an interview with the People’s Daily. Media reports suggested a trial run of the system would be carried out in the Beijing district of Mentougou, but it never materialised.
Song is now back with a new version of the idea. The company’s chairman Bai Zhiming told the People’s Daily in May that the project has created a huge wave of interest among local governments.
However, in Qinhuangdao where the test track is based, the local authorities appear to be trying to distance themselves from the project.
There is no information about the scheme on the local government website and the local planning agency told the China News Service that it did not endorse the TEB as a municipal transport project.
A series of media reports in China have also questioned the technological viability and the feasibility of the project.
This led some investors worried about the scheme to come down to check out the site on the same day as the Post was in Qinhuangdao.
Zhang Ying said he and three friends had driven from Beijing to see the TEB as they were all retail investors in the Huaying Group. It is owned by the chairman of TEB Technology and has ties to the firm.
“The company and the project are beset by so many questions. We are all worried,” said Zhang.
He has invested about 500,000 yuan (HK$582,000) into Huaying after its sales staff told him annual returns could be as high as 14 per cent. A one-year bank deposit rate in China is about 1.5 per cent.
The Post did manage to contact Yao Xu, an official in charge of press enquiries at TEB Technology, who said by phone that an “official test run” would be arranged in the coming weeks.