First dreamed up in 1969, the bus may help Chinese cities ease traffic and curb air pollution.

YouTube/Xinhua

Car ownership in China is soaring, with an estimated 20 million new drivers hitting the roads each year. Cities there can expect no shortage of air pollution and hellish traffic jams. While local governments are hoping that parking regulations and plate restrictions will ease congestion, engineers and designers are trying to find relief in technology.

What if there were a city bus that could carry more than a thousand passengers from one point to another without taking up any space on the road?

As fantastical as that sounds, it’s a solution that Chinese cities like Beijing are actually considering. Participants at the 19th International High-Tech Expo in Beijing this weekend watched excitedly as a tiny “straddling bus” gobbled up cars and spit them back out as it glided above the traffic in a model city. It’s a replica of what could be the future of China’s public transport.

The bus would span two traffic lanes and carry up to 1,400 passengers. It would travel up to 40 miles an hour above street level on a special track, allowing regular cars under 7 feet high to freely pass underneath. (As an extra touch, its underbelly even simulates the sky.)

More importantly, it would run on electricity and take the place of 40 buses, which could cut annual fuel consumption by 800 tons and carbon emissions by almost 2,500 tons, according to an interview with the chief engineer, Song Youzhou, conducted by China’s official news agency, Xinhua. And it would be less expensive than a subway system as it doesn’t involve digging up the ground.

The idea, while innovative, isn’t new. As TreeHugger pointed out, two architects—Craig Hodgetts and Lester Walker—dreamed up a similar concept back in 1969 as part of their “immodest proposal” for redesigning New York City. They called it the Bos-Wash Landliner, as it would run between Washington, D.C., and Boston. Writing in New York Magazine and providing a drawing that looks like something out of a classic Nintendo game, the authors expressed even bigger ambitions:

The Bos-Wash Landliner, bound for Boston, streaking through the 86th street reservoir area of Central Park … just about to drop off and pick up busloads of commuters before it resumes full speed of 200 miles an hour. It rides on nearly friction-free air cushion bearings (those plates which you see hugging the sides of the road are something like vacuum cleaners in reverse; the horses connecting them to the turbine-powered, ducted fan-jets above are filled with air). The fan-jets themselves have a regenerator cycle, which means no hot exhaust—important since the Landliner will be zooming only 16 feet over your head if you are driving along the freeway.

But since then, the straddling bus idea has stayed just that—an idea. Song first introduced his version in 2010. While it grabbed international headlines, it never came to fruition. At the time, Beijing said that it had plans to start building roughly five miles of track by the end of the year. But three years down the line, some news outlets began expressing doubt when they saw that no tracks had actually been laid out.

This time, according to the Xinhua news agency, the Beijing-based company Transit Explore Bus is currently building a life-size model in Changzhou and they plan to test it in July or August. If successful, it could help ease China’s transit problem, although it would still take years for the country to bring down its pollution levels. But as I previously wrote, new technology would have to encourage China’s 1.4 billion people to change their behavior. That includes changing their attitudes toward air pollution and the desire to own a car.

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