John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The Dutch government could soon adopt public buses that look like giant leeches and match a Porsche in speed.
It looks like a giant leech and is theoretically capable of traveling at 155 m.p.h. But is it the future of public transportation?
A team of European scientists sure think so. By 2015, they hope to have their "Superbus" concept implemented in the Netherlands, completely exploding the stereotype of a city bus as a boxy, exhaust-spewing sweatbox.
Invented by the wonderfully named Wubbo Ockels, the first Dutch astronaut and an engineering professor at the Delft University of Technology, the Superbus of the now is merely a cool-looking prototype. But with financial backing from the Dutch government and Connexxion, the biggest public-bus company in the Netherlands, it's hard to dismiss it as pie in the sky. The design team seems competent, too, with Italian aerodynamicist Antonia Terzi of Formula 1 fame leading the charge and Joris Melkert adding his expertise, which he honed working on the fastest solar cars in the world. Even Richard Branson thinks it could work.
But it's hard to imagine all these good things coming together without complications. The 50-foot-long, 23-seat Superbus runs on rechargeable batteries and regenerative braking and produces no CO2. Its chassis is built from carbon fiber and the body from fiberglass, both materials lightweight and energy-efficient. Cruising on a new kind of highway, the "Supertrack," the vehicle's radar system detects obstacles in the road up to 1,000 feet ahead and steers around them. (Homo sapiens handles the driving on smaller roads.) Sixteen gull-wing doors open to the sky, stirring up nostalgia in Delorean fans. There's Internet.
An artist's rendition of The Future of Mass Transit, according to the Dutch. (TU Delft/Superbus Project)
The schedule of the bus is even more bizarre. Basically, there is no schedule. Riders who want to get from point A to B send a text to a "central routing optimization system," and voila! The Superbus is there outside your home, noiselessly lurking. Passengers climb into the beige-sheathed interior and kick back as the bus slides onto the Supertrack, accelerating to the eye-tearing speeds of a racing Porsche. No changeovers! And all this convenience for a fare that is "comparable to the prices of present day’s public transport," according to the project's website.
Needless to say, this is not the right type of bus to get to the neighborhood sandwich shop. (Although, really, what's to prevent riders from doing so?) A more realistic use of the Superbus would be for long-distance commutes, such as from Abu Dhabi to Dubai. I could also see teenage socialites renting it out for prom, although Wubbo Ockels and his crew haven't said anything about where a disco ball could be hung.
The testing phase of the Superbus project continues. In February, engineers established that it could handle riding over snow as well as brake effectively on a track covered with "enourmous quantities of soap." For videos of this new vehicle strutting its stuff on the track, go here and here. It's a little weird how this electric vehicle almost sounds like an airplane when it passes by.
A Dutch politician inspects the Superbus. (TU Delft/Superbus Project)