On the buses: Public transport is undergoing a technological transformation

From hybrid engines and guided busways to coders' coaches and Formula One flywheels, Christopher Beanland reveals some of the latest innovations...

Last month's startlingly un-British heatwave left grumpy bus passengers in London sweltering, with temperatures on the new Boris Buses clocked at a sweat-producing 30.4C. The £354,000 buses were built without opening windows – and teething problems with their air-conditioning systems meant they overheated. It was a grim commute for anyone on the 38 and 24 routes the new buses operate.

Yet despite the abject fenestrative failures of these pricey pieces of public-transport kit, the Ulster-built buses have proved more of a hit with tourists, who like the "hop on, hop off" platforms on the Routemaster replacements – assuming the platform doors aren't shut, of course.

For so long the Cinderella of transport infrastructure, buses seem to be finally claiming their crown in the pantheon of public transport. More people use buses than the Tube in London. In Britain there were 5.2 billion bus journeys – two-thirds of all public-transport journeys – for the last recorded financial year, 2011-12. Yet buses remain unloved by some punters, and Boris Buses, guided buses and Silicon Valley's corporate shuttles have become political hot potatoes in their own way.

For all its problems, the Boris Bus is an example of a renaissance on the buses fired by innovative technology. "Personally I think that after the Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road is finished, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly and Park Lane could become a circular trolley- bus route – using converted Boris Buses," says Hilton Holloway, the associate editor of the motoring magazine Autocar.

Holloway helped to choose the curvy design of the Boris Bus and adds: "As urban populations swell, buses offer the best mix of affordability, flexibility, and low investment for mass transport. They're essential for budget travel because of the huge infrastructure costs – and, therefore, high fares – associated with new undergrounds or trams."

Here are some of the latest innovations...

FORMULA ONE BUSES

F1 and buses: chalk and cheese? Not so. Williams has adapted the flywheel it used in its 2009 Formula One car – and fitted it to buses. "It can save 20 to 30 per cent on fuel," claims James Francis of the Oxfordshire firm. "This fuel saving corresponds directly to an equivalent emissions reduction – important, as air quality in cities is a big issue."

The Williams flywheel harnesses kinetic energy when the bus brakes, and then feeds back to power the engine when it's running again. Another British company, Parry People Movers, uses the same gizmo to power its light tram-trains. But the flywheel's use on buses could lead to cleaner air and lower fuel bills. Unfortunately the flywheel doesn't permit buses to accelerate from 0mph to 60mph in 2.1 seconds. Yet.

HYBRID BUSES

Precocious inventor Alex Schey thinks he can make buses cleaner and cheaper. His Apprentice-sounding start-up, Vantage, has a design which retains the bus's diesel engine, but scales it back from a hefty seven litres to a mere 2.2 – the same as an estate car. The engine powers an electric generator which in turn charges a battery pack. The battery pack then powers an electric motor which runs the bus.

"We came up with the concept after we observed hybrid buses becoming popular – but saw their cost was high," he says. The 25-year-old engineer from London, who claims his parents helped him to work out how to build a hydrogen bomb at the age of 15, adds: "We wondered if retrofitting existing buses would be of interest to the industry. One and a half years later we're here with a prototype."

ELECTRIC BUSES

Natural-gas-powered buses are touted as being eco-friendly. Yet as we've come to realise recently, thanks to "fracking", no form of natural gas is totally green. For a greener bus you need to go all electric, if you charge it up from renewable sources. Los Angeles has previously bought natural-gas buses in bulk, but is now switching to electric models made by Chinese manufacturer BYD (it stands for the catchy Build Your Dreams). LA is buying 25 electric buses as part of a £20m drive to make its public transport more friendly to the earth.

Sustainably powered electric buses may be greener than diesel and natural gas, but are these BYD buses actually any good on long-distance routes such as those in LA? "BYD was rated highest in the proposal process," says Dave Sotero of LA public-transport body Metro. "We conducted a competitive procurement to purchase our first zero-emission buses." If you're fretting about them conking out, they can apparently go 155 miles between charges. Schiphol airport in Amsterdam is also convinced: it bought 35 of its own BYD electric buses last month.

THE DOG RUN

The motorways between San Francisco and Silicon Valley run white with unmarked buses ferrying coders and community managers from their condos in Frisco to offices in the Valley. The geeks have inherited the bus: Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, eBay and other corporations run huge fleets of these free, luxury "Dog Run" shuttles. But only employees can use them. It's probably the largest private bus-transport network on earth.

Is this Californian bus apartheid a dream come true or a nightmare made real? "The question is whether the affluent 'choice' transit riders being captured by the Silicon Valley shuttles are a critical lost constituency for the municipal transit systems in the area," says Sarah Goodyear, a New York-based contributor to The Atlantic. "If the most privileged and influential riders don't perceive those public bus systems as a necessity, will they fail to support them with tax dollars and political muscle in times of trouble?"

GUIDED BUSES

Guided busways are the ultimate bargain-bin choice of the transport world. They're essentially rolled out when cities can't afford trams or light rail. Buses run on concrete tracks in an ungainly trench. Busways have been embraced by Leeds, Crawley, Bradford, Ipswich and Tyneside, and as far afield as Adelaide.

The world's longest – and perhaps most controversial – guided bus runs from Cambridge to Huntingdon along an old railway alignment. "Cambridge's railway station is quite a way from the city centre so 'guided' buses have to travel unguided for a large proportion of their journeys in order to access the guided sections," contends Tim Phillips – who wants to reopen the railway for trains instead. "The result is almost all journeys are longer than their predecessors' conventional bus journeys." The guideway closed for more repairs last month and despite being open for two years, is still the subject of ongoing legal wrangling between council and construction companies over the cost of building it.

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

    £32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

    Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss