Is a ‘straddling bus’ China’s new best weapon against air pollution?

(Credit: TEB Tech)

Imagine you’re driving to work, and a public bus passes you – except it passes above you.

They’re calling it a “straddling bus” – or officially, the Transit Elevated Bus (TEB) – and it’s China’s latest solution to toxic air pollution and hellish traffic jams.

Like something out of a sci-fi movie, the huge metallic pod literally straddles two lanes of traffic, allowing cars to pass underneath its seven-foot clearance. And after a hyped reveal at a tech expo in May, the TEB made its real-life debut last Tuesday on a test drive before cheering spectators, gathered to witness its 6 mph crawl down less than 1,000 feet of controlled road conditions in Qinhuangdao city, Hebei province.

At full throttle, the TEB should be able to hit speeds of just over 35 mph, running along specialized tracks and carrying up to 1,400 passengers in a four-pod train. But the company behind the bus, TEB Technology, touts a “better environment with lower costs,” as its major contribution.

According to the TEB Technology website, the straddling bus will be “completely powered by municipal electricity and solar energy.” Replacing 40 traditional buses with one TEB, for the same passenger capacity, would, the company said, reduce annual fuel consumption by 864 metric tons and carbon emission by 2,640 metric tons.

“The invention of the Transit Elevated Bus is considered as a revolution for the environment-friendly public transportation,” the website declares.

The designers also said the bus system would be cheaper and faster to implement than other forms of environmentally friendly public transport, like a subway.

“TEB has the similar features and functions as the subway transit. But, … the average cost for TEB construction [per kilometer]are estimated to be USD $20 million, which is only 20 percent of the costs for the subway construction,” according to the website.

Of course, the TEB also aims to reduce the number of cars on the road, as well as ease traffic congestion. “No more traffic jams,” the designers declare happily on the website.

Amid seemingly endless reports of smog so bad that some people are purchasing bottled clean air, China actually seems to be making significant strides since declaring a “war on air pollution” in 2014.

Environment ministry officials announced in July that air quality has been continuously improving in major cities since the beginning of the year. Hebei province – where the TEB conducted its test drive – had seven cities among the top 10 most polluted cities in the country at the end of 2015. Six months later, they’re down to six.

But is a futuristic straddling bus really next in line to battle China’s air pollution?

Since its unveiling last Tuesday, questions have flooded China’s internet and media from all directions. How will it coordinate turns with car traffic? Will the roads be able to sustain the added weight? What happens when a vehicle taller than seven feet is stuck behind or even in front of a TEB?

A couple Chinese media outlets have even raised doubts about the legitimacy of the project, suggesting the whole thing is an investment scam.

Despite all these concerns, other countries with similar pollution and traffic problems are eyeing the TEB with immense curiosity, including India, Brazil and Indonesia. But logistics and conspiracy aside, the same problem would plague implementation of the TEB in any of these developing nations: changing people’s behavior.

With traffic deaths already a major global health concern in developing countries, changing aggressive driving habits to accommodate a massive moving tunnel would not be an easy task. Not only that, attitudes toward air pollution and even the desire to own a car would need to change, a City Lab article points out.

But Song Youzhou, the designer of the TEB, is not bothered by any of the criticism.

“Any invention will face challenges at the beginning, including the first underground train and the first airplane, but now they’ve all developed very well,” he told the BBC.

Song says a full trial run won’t be conducted until the middle of next year, so it seems the world will have to wait until then to see if a straddling bus really is the future of clean energy transportation in China and elsewhere.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.