5 Reasons No One Should Ever Take the Straddling Bus Seriously

A Chinese inventor actually built and tested this concept last week -- but it only emboldened skeptics of the concept. Photo: Youtube via Popular Science
A Chinese firm built and tested a prototype of this on a short track, but that might be the end of the road for the straddling bus. Image via Popular Science

The taller the bus, the harder it falls. Since 2010, a Chinese firm’s “straddling bus” concept has captured the imagination of people around the globe who want to avoid the hassle of carving out street space for transit. But a “test run” last week in the city of Qinhuangdao looks like it was the final blaze of glory for this idea.

Shortly after the test run, Chinese state media attacked the reputation of Song Youzhou, the designer of the “transit-elevated bus,” and labeled the project an elaborate scam to bilk investors. Whether or not you believe those allegations, the straddling bus is full of holes so big, you could drive a car through them (yuck yuck).

Here are five of the biggest.

1. It’s a train, not a bus

Let’s get this out of the way first. The “bus” would run on tracks. It’s a mistake to assume — as many people apparently have — that you could just plop a straddling bus with rubber tires on any old roadway and watch it go. Building tracks would be expensive and present a whole host of design challenges.

2. It only goes straight

This is a big one. How does a 25-foot-wide elevated train operating just above street traffic make turns? The 300-meter test run last week didn’t include any. Can you imagine this enormous vehicle making right-angle turns on ordinary streets? (If you’re wondering, some thought has in fact been given to the drivers who happen to be straddled by the bus at the time it turns. Special traffic signals underneath the bus would tell them to stop. What could go wrong?)

3. It can’t run on streets with overpasses

The bus is 16 feet tall and could not clear overpasses and bridges in cities like Beijing, according to the Times.

4. It’s not even that good at straddling

Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit carries 1 million riders a day. Photo: Wikipedia
Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit carries 1 million riders a day. Photo: Wikipedia

The clearance under the “bus” is 2.1 meters, but the maximum vehicle height in China is 4.5 meters. The one thing the straddling bus is supposed to do — straddle — it can’t do very well.

5. It’s just a fantasy to avoid building real transitways

This is the crux of the issue. Dedicated bus lanes can speed transit riders past traffic — no gimmicky technology needed. But cities have to be willing to claim that street space. If they do, transit lanes can easily move many more people than car lanes.

Indeed, the 14-mile bus rapid transit system in Guangzhou, China, is closing in on 1 million passengers a day. Now that the straddling bus has been debunked, maybe more places will look to replicate Guangzhou’s real-life success instead of fantasizing about something that will never happen.

  • swervo

    Another issue with it: It requires elevated stations. You can’t just plop down a bus stop somewhere, it has to have raised platforms for people to get on and off of it.

  • davistrain

    This idea has been around for a few years; I was rather surprised to see that one was actually built. I have commented in other places about how it looks like a cross between a gantry crane and a ferryboat. The term that probably applies to it is “Gadgetbahn”, transport media that look cool on the cover of Popular Science but are hopelessly impractical or economically unfeasible in the real world.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    Wouldn’t it be easier to just put pylons for elevated rail down that median?

  • Joe Linton

    Yep – that’s the one I was thinking of – for ADA access, cities would need to build elevators every few blocks.

  • John Riecke

    Thank you for the take-down 🙂

  • crazyvag

    I’ve been to Beijing a few years ago, and for that particular city, the idea is not that far fetched. Type in “Beijing, China” and look at the street network. Here are some counterpoints:

    * Most main streets in Beijing are 4-5 lanes wide in each direction and that doesn’t factor in left turn lanes or the bike paths that are frequently separated by a barrier. Beijing, while a large city, is not like SF, NYC or Hong Kong with narrow streets.

    * Now if you have 10 lane roads, dedicating 2 out of 5 lanes to cars/low-overhead vehicles for this “bus” is not at all crazy.

    * If you have a 10 lane road, turns will have wide radius.

    * Lastly, the traffic light cycle in Beijing is very different, and many will argue superior to what we have in terms of efficiency. I’ll let others describe it, but let’s say that left turn has 2 phases, first phase when cars pull up to middle of the intersection and second phase when cars turn left at the same time when bike lanes (located at right curbs) turn left at the same time.

  • Michel S

    If thier roads are so wide, all the more reason to just dedicate one or more of those lanes to transit-only service. No new expensive speculative vehicle types required, no new elevated station typologies to design and construct, and perhaps most importantly it’s already proven to work without vast sums of public capital that would be vulnerable to fraud.

  • thielges

    This is easy to fix. In place of wheels, put the bus into an elevated pneumatic tube.

  • crazyvag

    Dedicating lanes makes them unusable to other traffic, and sharing with cars makes buses/trams tied up to traffic. This gives you a compromise where smaller vehicles can still traverse the space.

    Also, you can cram more people into such a bus given the width than you can into a tram, so there’s some benefit there too.

    Lastly, you’re trying to save money on subway, but get more capacity passenger capacity with lower traffic impact than dedicated lanes. Nothing wrong with a little innovation. US is full of “innovations” that are questionable.. (Seattle monorail, Detroit monorail, Vegas monorail, BART using unique track gauge, SF street cars that require both high level and street level boarding) but still have proven useful.

  • calwatch

    Of course, in China, there are very little accommodations to disabled people. Their urban roadways, which use flimsy metal fences to divide roadways (rather than curbs, guardrails, or Jersey barriers) are much different from those in the West.

  • Lila Wagner
  • 66 City

    Exactly. We’ll have that thing running at 700mph in no time. It’s gonna be great.

  • Paul

    I was trying to find information about Bejing’s left turn system, but instead found an argument that traffic is just a nightmare there: http://soimgoingtochina.blogspot.com/2007/06/beijing-traffic-lesson-left-turn.html?m=1

  • The whole point of dedicated lanes is that other traffic doesn’t use them. That’s a feature, not a bug. While yes, there other “innovative” things that have been decently useful, there are no clear benefits to this straddling bus that would warrant the expenditure of what are often exceedingly meager transit dollars on a project that will be more obsolete than a streetcar from Day One.

    Furthermore, what makes you think that there is no spatial impact from this contraption? The track area has to be kept clear, otherwise it still gets stuck in traffic. Building the stations will likely require the relocation of things at those points. How is it powered? That infrastructure will also take space. This isn’t the no-impact-on-cars transit solution that it’s being billed as.

  • Pet P

    The biggest problem with the straddlebus is that it does not remove or obstruct automobile travel lanes, like a “proper” transportation solution would do.

  • Edd Starr

    As a daily bus rider I know that costs are always a going concern. But the little kid in me loves the idea of new transit projects with the feel and fun of a World’s Fair amusement ride. The tax payer in me knows that the practical, cost effective path is dedicated bus lanes, to move the most for the least.

    I look forward to seeing a Straddling Bus at Expo 2020.

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