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.

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