John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The whimsical plastic people-mover, a blend of monorail and recumbent bicycle, was a big enough idea to attract an investment by Google. So where is it now?
UPDATE 2 P.M. 3/28/12: The Shweeb is definitely still alive. Inventor Barnett writes back:
Yes, we are working on prototyping Shweebs with software to handle any transit network requirements as per the Google grant, and we are working on closing deals for improved versions of the racetrack... and no - we don't have time for any other projects!
ORIGINAL: The Shweeb: Say it loud and proud!
Believe it or not, this crazy, absolutely lovable people-mover, based in New Zealand, is considered a viable form of mass transit. Google indicated as much in 2010 when it injected $1 million into The Shweeb after the ultragreen system, which looks like a tube maze for mutant megagerbils, came out on top of its Ideas that Could Change the World contest. (What is it with Google and fanciful people-movers?) Money in hand, Team Shweeb announced it was building its first public system and then disappeared from view.
And that's just unacceptable. Keeping the public in the dark about The Shweeb is cruel! Looking for answers, I e-mailed Shweeb inventor Geoffrey Barnett for a status update. This response arrived last night:
Thanks for your enquiry. We are busy on various projects, esp. prototyping a traffic management system - much of it is covered by NDAs, so we can't report it on the website.
It would be a pleasure to update you when we have concrete results.
That is one maddeningly vague answer right there. It would seem that Barnett is saying his guys are working on traffic-control measures for The Shweeb, although perhaps he's referring to another project altogether – perhaps The Zorb? I have asked for clarification and will update this post the second that Barnett gets back.
With a name that sounds like a 7th-grade bully invented it – The Scrub and The Dorkus would've also worked – and a design that does not require fuel, promotes fitness, is efficient and apparently slipped through a wormhole from the Blorp Universe, it would be a shame if anything bad happened to The Shweeb. For unfortunate souls who've never heard of this thing, it is basically a cross between a monorail and recumbent bicycles. Clear, bullet-shaped pods hang from a long metal track. Riders climb into them and assume a horizontal position, then start to furiously pedal to propel themselves along at about 25 m.p.h., reaching 60 degree angles on track bends. Faster pedalers bump into slower ones, forming an aerodynamic train of pods that all slide at the same speed.
What is to prevent riders who are sandwiched in the middle of a chain of pods from not doing any pedaling at all is not addressed in the literature I've seen. But you gotta figure that the people who will use The Shweeb are a goodhearted, exercise-loving bunch, and not given to such craven cheating.
The current incarnation of this people-mover, far as I can tell, is a 656-foot-long test track at an outdoors theme park in Rotorua. If you're ever in the neighborhood, drop by and use The Shweeb! For all others, here's hoping that these vintage promos, photos and concept art will suffice. Prepare for a ShweebDump!
Promo clip No. 1:
Promo clip No. 2:
All material courtesy of Shweeb Holdings.