Dutch Superbus

Last fall, the Onion made fun of Obama’s high-speed rail plan with an alternative high-speed bus proposal. But Wubbo Ockels, a physicist and the first Dutch astronaut, wasn’t laughing.

High-speed trains, Ockels says, are too slow and don’t go where people want to go. So he has designed and built a prototype electric-powered bus capable of going 150 mph. The bus holds 23 passengers and, as he envisions it, would operate on dedicated lanes in the median strips of existing highways. But it could also leave these lanes and operate at conventional speeds on ordinary roads and streets, which means it could serve far more destinations than high-speed trains.

Ockels’ concept vehicle is a useful counterpoint to the high-speed rail program. But the Antiplanner is skeptical that high-speed buses on exclusive bus lanes are significantly more viable than trains. The great thing about highways and streets is they are inherently multi-modal, carrying bicycles, motorcycles, cars, buses, and trucks. That means the costs are shared among all these users rather than imposed on just one small class of people or externalized via subsidies.

Around the world, highways have maximum speed limits that generally top out around 130 kph (80 mph–though Texas may increase its limit to 85). This limit is probably as much due to slow human reflexes as to highway design. As cars become driverless, all forms of motorized highway travel, not just 23-passenger buses, will be able to go faster.

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12 thoughts on “Dutch Superbus

  1. metrosucks

    I agree with the Antiplanner that these “buses” aren’t necessarily more viable that trains. In many ways, they’re a nod to trains, and will probably cost nearly as much, what with the dedicated guideway and the equipment required to ensure safety at those speeds (assuming 150mph is even reasonable).

  2. Sandy Teal

    My professor says that the future is the automated cars that form into “trains” for long distances, but can split apart as the cars reach their exits from the dedicated highway. That way the automated cars can be packed in tightly, travel fast, and yet the passengers can travel by car for the first and last miles of the trip.

  3. msetty

    This is a typically technophilic overreaction to the so-called “transfer problem” that dozens of addle-brained “inventors” have tried to “solve” with redundant, unneeded technologies nothing, like “personal rapid transit,” “dual mode” and many similar ideas.

    The Swiss solved the “transfer problem” decades ago, simply by timing connections between rail lines, local transit, and rural transit at a network of key hubs, virtually all of which are at relatively long headways, e.g., every 30 or 60 minutes (adequate for longer trips).

    As I’ve pointed out before, it is possible to travel across Switzerland from the most obscure mountain village in the east to the most obscure mountain village in the west in 5-6 hours with up to 5-6 connections, waiting time totaling no more than 30-35 minutes+/-. And these travel times generally match auto times within 10-15 minutes.

    Of course, good luck trying to explain why Swiss connections have been successful, and the philosophy behind that success, to those who have been mesmerized by the technophilic glamour of high speed rail, e.g., not fully understanding the successful way to implement it (certainly not the current California HSR concept!)

  4. The Antiplanner Post author

    Sandy Teal,

    I mentioned such “road trains” in a previous post. While an interesting intermediate step between our current system and a totally driverless system, I am not sure it is really necessary. The technology for totally driverless cars is available today.

  5. Andrew

    Around the world, highways have maximum speed limits that generally top out around 130 kph (80 mph–though Texas may increase its limit to 85). This limit is probably as much due to slow human reflexes as to highway design.

    Germany allows unlimited speed on the Autobahn without any more highway incidents than places with silly 55-70 mph speed limits (much of USA and Canada). Having driven on the Autobahn I found my own personal comfort zone ended at around 110 mph, but I drove at 145 mph for a while just to say I had done it and I was keeping pace with plenty of other drivers who obviously drive that speed all the time. We all know that there are many roads in the US where cars routinely travel at 80-100 mph in traffic even if it is not technically legal – I’m thinking of I95 in South Carolina and Georgia and interstates and US highways in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada.

    Almost any travel at motorized speeds is beyond the real reflexes of humans which is why we need to keep following distance rules in mind to avoid 8 car rear-ender pile-ups and watch closely at curves and intersections. The book “Traffic” has some very interesting observations about human ability and speed, and it improving over time.

  6. Andrew

    My professor says that the future is the automated cars that form into “trains” for long distances, but can split apart as the cars reach their exits from the dedicated highway. That way the automated cars can be packed in tightly, travel fast, and yet the passengers can travel by car for the first and last miles of the trip.

    This concept already exists in real life other than the automated cars. Its called the Amtrak Auto-Train.

  7. Andrew

    dedicated lanes in the median strips of existing highways

    Isn’t this really High Speed “Bus Rapid Transit”? The construction cost of the dedicated highway speed BRT’s in Pittsburgh and Ottawa is comparable to the high cost of rail construction. It has a lower top capacity, but obviously allows for flexibility in “last mile” running on existing streets.

    I don’t see any benefit in this HS Bus at all though. Travellers by bus are generally the very bottom of the market economically, as reflected in the prices charged for tickets. Travellers willing to pay more money per mile want the speed, comfort, and ability to get up and move around you find on planes and trains. Business ticket cost level express buses have generally been dismal failures. This HS Bus adds speed but appears to probably be even less comfortable than existing highway buses, and with little baggage capacity.

  8. bbream

    I’m sorry, but I was done listening to arguments against this vehicle as soon as I saw that it had gull-wing doors. Call me a sucker for any echo of the DeLorean.

    In all seriousness, I share the skepticism. I’m not convinced that dedicated bus lanes, even with barriers, would be sufficient safety measures for a vehicle traveling so much more quickly than the other vehicles around it, and I think HOT lanes are more promising ways to accomplish what I assume this bus system would try to accomplish.

    But I don’t think I agree with your assessment of the bus market, Andrew. I think you’re right that intracity bus riders are more likely drawn from low-income populations, but I think intercity bus riders attract regular business commuters. I live in the Triangle Area of North Carolina, which is served by an intercity bus service called Triangle Transit. I’ve met with Triangle Transit operators, and they’ve said that about 40% of commuters are businesspeople who travel between Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham during peak-hour commutes. They describe these commuters as “choice riders” who prefer bus service to taking their own cars. I think the increasing amenities offered by intercity buses reflect this–nicer interiors, WiFi, etc., which the AP discussed in this past post: http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=1554 I don’t think bus companies would make these investments if they weren’t seeing an increased market share from business commuters, although admittedly I’m sure they’re making these improvements in hopes of attracting these commuters. Unfortunately I don’t have many hard numbers on commuter demographics to back up what I’m saying, but if anyone does, let me know.

    But I do agree with you that if these bus systems were charging fares comparable to airplanes or trains (the bus systems I was referring to generally charge $10 to $15 per trip, and the Triangle Transit system fares start at $5 for an all-day Express pass with one transfer to another regional/intracity system), they wouldn’t be able to compete with the greater comfort and/or speed of planes and trains.

    But come on, GULL WING DOORS.

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