In major cities across China, traffic congestion, and the air pollution that comes along with it, is becoming a major problem. According to Tomtom Traffic Index, 10 out of the world’s 25 most congested cities are in China. The design of the old streets in most cities is not intended for a car-dominated society. Population growth, increasing ownership of private vehicles, and urbanization are believed to further aggravate the problem.
Faced with the consequence of prolonged commute times and air pollution, the government is building more infrastructure solutions in an effort to offer affordable public urban transportation options. The vast majority of cities in China are building or expanding existing subway systems. Subway construction as well as operation & maintenance (O&M) are heavily subsidized by the government. Where does the money come from? Typically, it comes from taxpayers, bank loans, though, in some cases, high construction and O&M fees can often become a substantial financial burden for smaller cities and ultimately limit investment in other capital projects.
Here are three urban transportation innovations that seek to alleviate traffic congestion with relatively low construction costs.
BYD launched its first commercial monorail, SkyRail, in Yinchuan on September 1, 2017. SkyRail is a monorail system constructed above the street that provides a commuting alternative in the urban area. SkyRail is BYD’s first multi-million yuan R&D project in the mass transit market, and its debut marks BYD as the first private company in China to enter the mass transit market.
The initial phase of Yichuan’s SkyRail is 5.7 km (3.5 mile) long with eight stations. SkyRail runs at a speed up to 80 km/h (50 mph) and carries around 170 passengers per car. It took only four months to build and cost about RMB 600 million (USD 91 million). Compared to a typical subway, SkyRail requires only 1/5 of the construction costs and 1/3 of the construction time.
BYD spent five years and RMB 5 billion in R&D. BYD owns the intellectual property rights of the design of the straddle-type monorail system. BYD has contracted two overseas SkyRail orders this year, one in the Philippines and the other in Egypt. A 20 kilometers SkyRail in Iloilo, Philippines is scheduled to be operational in 2019. Likewise, Alexandria, Egypt, which, suffers from the frequent traffic jams, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with BYD on Oct 21. Alexandria expects its forthcoming 128-kilometer monorail to offer a clean, affordable, and safe way for people to commute.
ART (Autonomous Rapid Transit)
Most recently, CRRC tested its ART in Zhuzhou in October. The bus-like ART acts as a street-level urban rapid transit system. Rather than traditional tracks, ART runs on a set of white dashed lines painted on the street. The sensors guide the vehicle precisely along the virtual tracks, and the smart system detects the distance of surrounding vehicles and pedestrians and responds to unexpected situations accordingly. ART will likely be driverless in the future, but the test line is currently operated by a driver.
The maximum speed of ART is 70 km/h (43 mph), and it can travel for 25 km following a 10-minute charge and achieve zero emissions. The test ART can carry up to 300 passengers within the three-carriage unit. ART is as flexible as buses but is designed to better confront the challenges of traffic congestion and poor air quality. Construction costs are approximately 1/5 of a traditional tram systems.
There are many uncertainties surrounding ART. Currently, all ART stations are located in the middle of the street, which means they take up space of existing roads. Will ART replace bus lines or will it function as a supplementary rapid transit? Will it alleviate or increase traffic congestion? So far there is no safety barrier installed to separate ART from the other vehicles, cyclists, or pedestrians. If ART turns driverless in the future, will it be safe? Will other objects and obstacles slow down ART? What’s more, there are no existing regulations for driverless vehicles, should other people give the priority to the ART? Clearly, ART has homework to do before SkyRail rolls out into more cities.
Hyperloop technology was introduced to the public by Elon Musk. In 2013, a ‘high-speed’ rail was approved in California. However, many people were disappointed about its construction cost and the speed. SpaceX, Musk’s private company, published a whitepaper on Hyperloop technology. Given its supersonic speeds of up to 1,300km/h (800mph) in reduced pressure tubes, Hyperloop can be used for both inter- and intra-city transportation. Hyperloop tubes can be built either aboveground or underground.
Musk has little interest in commercializing Hyperloop. Hyperloop’s design, created by SpaceX engineers, became open source, and now several startups are working hard on different applications.
Hyperloop One is a startup focusing on the route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. In a recent test in August, 2017, a Hyperloop One pod hit 192 mph. Hyperloop One raised USD 85 million in its last investment round in October, 2017 backed by Richard Branson from Virgin Group.
Unlike Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) is not a company but a group of more than 800 part-time engineers and more than 40 corporate partners from all over the world. Chinese architecture firm MAD Architects and 3D printing architecture firm Winsun are among the Engineering and Design Partner team. PriestmanGoode, the British transportation design firm that partnered with CRRC Sifang to work on the CRH high-speed train, is also a HTT Partner. HTT signed multiple contracts to develop Hyperloop Transit in California, South Korea, Indonesia, etc.
Hyperloop is very forward-thinking and has drawn attention in Asian cities as well. It is particularly well-suited to connect cities. The biggest benefit of Hyperloop is its ultrafast speed. The per-person power required to move the pod is very low for the journey. The design will likely bring major cities and smaller cities together like a railway route. However, the R&D associated with Hyperloop technologies takes more time and costs more compared with other sophisticated technologies. How can Hyperloop sustain its own development in the long run? Will Hyperloop create an urban sprawl problem with its extended radius? We’ll wait and see.
Bringing it all together
Entrepreneurs are using innovative technologies and business models to solve the triple-lever problems of traffic congestion, air pollution, and financial sustainability. However, much work remains in finding the next generation of mass transportation solutions, particularly in minimizing negative environmental and financial impacts and maximizing positive impacts on local economies and communities.
(Top photo from Hyperloop One)