Monthly Archives: January 2014

Can we make a better transport system?

Today Jim is visiting a friend who lives in a town 20 miles (30km) away. He walks to his local Swift station. The Swift system has been steadily developed since 2030 and it now covers much of the country. Swift stations are spaced so that most people in towns live within half a mile of a station. Those who live further away tend to use bikes or electric cars to reach the Swift.

At the station - travelling backwards!
At the station – travelling backwards!

He walks straight in a ground level and goes to Platform 1, since he is travelling alone and that platform has standard pods. A Swiftpod has just arrived and the attendant waves him across. Everyone sits in the Swift facing backwards, which takes a little getting used to but means that there is no need for seat belts. If there is a problem and the pod brakes heavily he will simply sink into the seat. Jim swipes his card and touches the screen for his destination.

The pod is moved up to the overhead rail, which runs above the streets. It sets off and soon it is in open countryside. It runs at a steady 60mph (100kph), never needing to stop for intersections.

High speed between towns
High speed between towns

After around 20 minutes the pod approaches his destination. It flies above the streets, missing all the traffic.

Gliding over the streets
Gliding over the streets

Soon Jim hears the handling system lowering the pod into the station. He gets out and walks to see his friend. No hassle, no licence needed, no parking, no insurance, faster than the car, and low energy use (low Q).

Swift brings lots of benefits:

  1. It is lightweight, slender and streamlined to use much less energy than a road car.
  2. It is electrically powered so that it is zero emission if powered from a carbon free source.
  3. It doesn’t take up much surface space, so it can get to the centre of towns.
  4. Everyone can use it, not just those who can get a driving licence. This is because it is fully automatic. (There are special vehicles for the disabled, or for larger families, or for outsize goods).
  5. Unlike the car, it doesn’t kill drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. The reduction in car journeys makes it safer for people to walk and cycle, saving further carbon emissions.
  6. It can transport goods without needing a driver, with vehicles sized to match the load.
  7. It doesn’t need to stop at road junctions because all intersections are flyovers. It doesn’t need to stop to pick up or set down other passengers. This saves energy in accelerating and braking, and it also means that point to point journey times are much faster than a bus and, for many journeys, faster than a road car.

Swift links suburbs and towns to each other and to train stations. It is important because it reduces the use of private cars, which are not energy efficient.  A linked page covers why cars can never be as efficient as a system like Swift.

Why aren’t we developing this type of system? Well, to a limited extent we are. Google have put money into the Schweeb, a pedal powered system – See video. This is currently installed at an adventure park but the principles look exciting. The commentator on the video calls Schweeb hard work, but hard work for a human means a power level which is of the order of 1% of the power required by a car. An electric Schweeb would be very efficient.

There is also a  Polish system called MISTER which has not yet been put into full service but looks very good. There is an excellent video on the MISTER website that shows how these systems operate.

There is a UK version called ULTRA which runs on a track, rather than being suspended beneath a rail. ULTRA is in service at Heathrow Terminal 5 to connect with a car park. More ULTRA systems are planned. Systems like ULTRA and MISTER are called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems, and they have a long history of slow development. There is currently an increased level of interest that will hopefully lead to further orders for these systems..

So while there is some encouraging news, the overall investment in this technology remains too small. The objectives of development also need reconsideration – there is a current focus on PRTs for cities. Such systems would be useful, but the biggest problem we face is transport outside the city. City systems do not need to be very streamlined because they only need to travel at 30 mph (50kph).

The safety and accessibility regulations for PRTs are often read across from taxis, cars and trains. Not surprisingly this sometimes produces a vehicle with similar size and shape to a taxi. If so it is unlikely to have a drastically reduced energy requirement.

New regulations are needed, consistent with the need to reduce energy use. They need to recognise developments in control and monitoring technology that will make crashes very rare and therefore reduce some safety requirements. However the development of  unified safety regulations is a long process. Considerable experience of operation is required so that the regulations can be well designed. 

I made my passengers face backwards to illustrate the possible effects of safety issues. Rear facing passengers survive crashes better, especially if safety belts are not used. They also fit better into the streamlined shape. Safety regulations would not just cover passenger protection from accidents but also issues such as emergency evacuation and health problems during the journey, how close together vehicles could travel, and maximum braking and cornering loads.

Accessibility is another key regulatory issue. A flat floor, for example, provides good accessibility for a tram or bus without any serious penalty, but is not consistent with the best aerodynamic shape in these systems. Would regulators accept that an able bodied solo rider can use a slim, light, easily driven vehicle, or would they insist that all vehicles can accommodate wheelchairs? We need regulation that recognises the seriousness of the energy issue.

A general problem is that governments expect industry to lead with ideas and to co-fund development. The business case for  systems like Swift is currently marginal, because the car is so convenient, and its extravagant energy use is affordable. Of course things may change in future, but who knows? The fact that the  regulatory system is uncertain may also be a problem for investors –  the system shown in the sketch may never be permitted. There are technical uncertainties. The timescales are also too long for commercial investment.

We will be very lucky to get a major commercial lead on a system like this. Direct international action, driven and funded by governments, will be needed to make this type of system available when needed.