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China built a giant traffic-straddling bus. We have questions.

transit elevated bus
"Look out behind you!"

So you know those giant straddle-bus things that people on the internet have been hyping ever since 2010? The Chinese actually went and built one.

Look at this sucker!

The Transit Elevated Bus, a.k.a. the straddle-bus thing, is real

The concept for the Transit Elevated Bus (TEB) has been floating around since engineer Song Youzhou, chair of the delightfully named Shenzhen Hashi Future Parking Equipment Co., introduced it at a high-tech Beijing expo in 2010.

The idea is to lift buses up above traffic so they are not slowed by it and don’t make it worse — to be grade-separated and thus faster than bus rapid transit (BRT), but cheaper than a subway. The concept actually goes all the way back to 1969, when a similarly shaped Boston-to-New York "Landliner" was proposed. It was outfitted with cruise-like amenities and a giant claw to pick up and swallow city buses! Lloyd Alter tells that kooky story over on Treehugger.

Anyway, in 2010, there was much talk of a TEB prototype in China, but it never came to anything. Last year, Song Youzhou introduced a new and improved version, with a cool scale model, at another high-tech expo.

Apparently, it reignited enough hype to get an actual prototype built. Not only that, but its first test was on Tuesday the northeastern city of Qinhuangdao, in Hebei province. (The Tuesday test was initially reported by Chinese media to be a true road test; now reporters are claiming it was just a short internal test.)

The new TEB is electric, with a supercapacitor on board that’s charged by poles alongside routes. It runs on tracks laid on either side of a two-lane road. Cars lower than about 7 feet can drive beneath it, and it fits beneath overpasses.

It can travel up to 37 mph and hold about 300 people. Four TEBs can link up into an articulated "train" that carries 1,200 people — about as much as a subway train for, its engineers claim, a fifth of the price. People will board from above, via stairs or elevators from special stations.

Look at this interior!
(China Xinhua News)

Over at Jalopnik, Jason Torchinsky digs into some of the details. And he identifies some questions that have been puzzling me, related to what happens when you drive under that thing.

Driving underneath a giant moving bridge seems like it would be weird

Some of the views we’ve gotten of the TEB show the sides having windows, while others show them as relatively solid. And there are lights along the underside.

If I’m under it, in a car, won’t it trick my perspective?

When you’re on a train that’s not moving and another train next to you starts up, you can feel like you’re moving backwards. I’ll be moving at one speed and the TEB will be moving at another. What’s my fixed point of reference?

It just seems like it would be incredibly disorienting. And what happens if cars veer, collide, or flip while underneath the TEB?

This is from a story on Best the News:

The bus will have alarms to warn cars traveling too close to it, and signals to warn other vehicles when it is about to turn. It would have inflatable evacuation slides similar to those of an aircraft. Optional features could include sensors to keep it from colliding with a person or object (such as an overheight vehicle in front), warning lights and safety curtains at the rear to keep drivers of overheight vehicles from going underneath, repeater traffic signals underneath to relay the indications of traffic signals up ahead, and animated light displays to simulate stationary objects to prevent disorientation of drivers underneath.

This last highlighted bit is a head scratcher. Does that mean those lights on the underside are going to move, so they appear stationary relative to the road?

According to this video, the sides will have big windows and the underside will have … clouds?

All we have to go on for now is concept videos and sketchy news reports -- reports that lately include allegations of fraud by the company behind the TEB. If TEBs ever actually hit the road, we’ll get a much better look at how (and whether) they work.

Ultimately, urban design isn’t about technology; it’s about geometry, fitting lots of people into small spaces and getting them around efficiently. The TEB is a potentially clever solution to a geometrical problem: It puts transit users on a higher plane.

Everyone thought it was going to be another cool concept that never went anywhere (cough*Hyperloop*cough). But China dreams big these days. If they prove that it works over there, maybe we’ll even see a TEB stateside sometime soon.