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Can China's elevated bus boost transport efficiency?

Some of you may remember a wacky proposal to build an elevated bus that appeared in China earlier this year.

Transit elevated bus test in China

You probably thought it was one of those pie-in-the-sky ideas that would never actually see the light of day.

Or that it was just a Chinese engineering firm trying to get a bit of publicity by proposing an intriguing but entirely impractical transport solution.

Well, the idea seems to have moved a step closer to becoming reality.

Last week, the transit elevated bus (or TEB-1 as it’s rather catchily known) debuted on a test track in the city of Qinhuangdao, in China’s north-eastern province of Hebei.

Running on a 300-m track, the vehicle allowed cars to pass beneath it while passengers rode in the elevated compartment above.

The TEB-1 wasn’t small itself, either, coming in at 22 m long, 7.8 m wide and 4.8 m wide, with capacity for 300 passengers above, according to Chinese newspaper The People’s Daily.

And this is where some doubts have already started to creep in.

Chinese whispers

After all of the initial fanfare, there have been some accusations that the test was not quite as it appeared.

“TEB-1 has been a hit on social media and fascinated people who work in infrastructure (as well as catching the eye of the Indian prime minister)”

The project, conceived and delivered by TEB Technology Development Company, has seemingly been funded by peer-to-peer lending so far, prompting some Chinese state media to claim that the test run was just designed to raise more money.

In addition, TEB TDC has acknowledged that the test was meant to be more of an internal affair, having been carried out on a closed track in controlled conditions – not on the open road as some of the pictures and tweets initially made it seem.

Qinhuangdao authorities weren’t even aware the test was happening, showing how far away it is from running on the city’s roads for real, while the height of TEB-1 has also been questioned.

Its 4.8 m height is actually 0.3 m taller than the limit on most Chinese roads, while there is only 2.1 m below for cars to pass underneath – smaller than the national standard of cars in China, according to The People’s Daily.

Could it come to the UK?

There are a few issues to be ironed out then before we see this running properly. And it seems pretty unlikely that this could be translated directly to the UK either – for a start, our roads and cities are usually constrained by the existing built environment.

Chris Hallam, partner at infrastructure law firm Nabarro, told me that he likes the principles behind it, even if it’s not practical to replicate it exactly here.

“It’s great innovative thinking. Instead of just saying ‘We need more roads’, you think about how to make better use of existing roads, or if we even need roads as opposed to other means of transport,” he said. “I know we have so-called smart roads, but they’re not really that smart in the scheme of things.”

Of course, in China they’re also building entire cities and new road networks from scratch – which means they actually do have the potential to implement a system like this if it was considered far enough in advance.

This is why the TEB-1 has been a hit on social media and fascinated people who work in infrastructure (as well as catching the eye of the Indian prime minister).

It may be impractical and it may be unlikely to ever run on China’s roads for real.

But it’s an imaginative solution to a tricky problem, one that uses technology to help make the built environment a better and more efficient place for those using it.

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