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...


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.


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."


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 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 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

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

    £13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

    £16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence