Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city has asked to be a test site for the “flying” pods, which could replace boats on the Seine.
Could miniature high-speed catamarans on urban waterways be the future of city transit? The answer to that question might seem to be a very obvious no. But a new plan for Paris has nonetheless pushed such an improbable mobility option closer to becoming a reality.
The SeaBubble is the latest vehicle design from French inventor and yachtsman Alain Thébault, who’s also co-creator of the world’s fastest sailing boat. A four-person hydrofoil that looks like a Smart car on stilts or a Fiat 500 crossed with an ape, the SeaBubble would ply its trade on the Seine (making its current name somewhat inappropriate). Initially the craft would come with a driver, but the SeaBubble could ultimately be made autonomous, running fixed routes along the river without the need for any human intervention.
This new form of urban transit may come across as unlikely simply because it sounds like much too much fun to be true. But according Le Figaro, it’s no mere pipe dream. Last November, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo wrote to Thébault’s company, Hydroptere, expressing a clear interest in being the first test site for what she called “the flying bubbles.” A prototype craft should be ready this summer and full production could begin in 2017, with a unit price currently estimated at €12,000. A Paris in which people get around on the water in zippy little aquatic pods has just got a little closer.
The Sea Bubbles wouldn’t just be fun. Powered by batteries partially recharged by solar panels, they would be designed to produce no carbon emissions. By running on foils, the craft would also cause less splash and erosion on the river’s banks than more conventional boats.
The catamaran pods form part of an inventive wave that looks to develop public transit with more autonomous vehicles—smaller and more flexible in their potential routes than regular buses. The British city of Milton Keynes, for example, will trial a driverless pod car system in 2018 that will let passengers to plot their own route through downtown. Other pod systems may well follow suit.
The SeaBubble arguably steals an edge among this crowd by using an under-exploited thoroughfare. Clearly it has limitations. Within Paris, it could only go up and down the river. It would probably require the adaptation of existing pontoons and wouldn’t necessarily link up to other forms of transit.
But as a pleasure and tourist craft, ferrying passengers between, say, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, it would surely be a hit. The intimacy and seclusion of the craft might likewise attract local users who are deterred by the tourist crowds on the city’s Batobus water buses. If we all squint, we might possibly be looking at a future where automatic pods like these are to waterfront and riverside cities what gondolas have long been to Venice.