Electrify the Buses!
There is a common misconception that trolleybuses or trolleycoaches run on rails or are guided by their overhead wires. Trolleybuses do neither but can be guided.
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Despite conjuring up thoughts
about the back-end of the proverbial, buses are still crucial to public
transport. They still carry far more
people than any other public transport mode. Without them, traffic congestion
would be even more intolerable than it is today in many a city. Buses are much
more efficient users of road space and energy per passenger than cars. Only one
vehicle in twenty driving round Parliament Square in London is a bus and yet
they carry half of all the passengers. They do, however, emit large amounts of
SOx, NOx and worst of all, micro-particles of contaminated carbon from their internal combustion engines.
Thus, while buses are so essential and relatively efficient, they still contribute to pollution - if perhaps less so than cars. What can be done to make them cleaner and more attractive to car users?
It's a subject that's been exercising the minds of transport planners for the last decade and they have come up with some surprising answers. Without going into the wilder flights of fancy by looking at monorails, people movers and car replacements, this page keeps to the pragmatic solutions currently being tried around the world that have some chance of widespread implementation.
We're talking here about street based mass transit - buses, trams and trolleybuses.
Trams, until 10 years ago, were considered ancient relics that protagonists felt they had to rename to avoid negative connotations. Terms like rapid transit and light rail tried to hide the fact that trams were being re-invented to save city centres from car congestion. In France, where commitment to public spending for the public good always had a strong political will to ensure prestige plans happened, there started a trend. In Germany too, and to some extent in Britain, trams were extensively modernised, even reintroduced. In Strasbourg, futuristic vehicles started to cruise the streets in deceptive quietness, quality smoothness and airy comfort. The home of Europe's Parliament could afford the sort of money-no-object installation of the very best that public transport engineering and planning could provide. And those cities of Europe that have sufficient size and commitment followed suit.
The last decade has seen a profusion of stylish trams sweeping into view. With the advantage of zero emissions at street level, electrically powered rail cars running either in their own reservation or together with other traffic have very significant efficiency and environmental merits. They can be powered by any, and preferably renewable, electrical generating source, they are reliable and long-lived, and they offer an attractive ride, a not inconsiderable point when trying to get car drivers out of their favourite mode. But trams can only be justified where passenger numbers are significant, of the order of 10,000 plus people an hour. Trams are very good at shifting large numbers, but there are only so many places where their return will justify the expense. An expense that has to include virtually rebuilding and realigning, not only the roadway to accommodate tramway operations, but all the underground services that make up the infrastructure of a 21st century city. These civil engineering tasks come with a price tag that is staggering - as much as £20 million per kilometre.
But electric street traction doesn't absolutely need steel wheels running on rails to make it attractive. Electric traction is very environmentally appealing because it is the only way to deliver zero emissions where it counts - on the streets at the point of use. Californian legislation, despite increasingly desperate attempts by car manufacturers, is going to insist on battery-electric powered cars forming a percentage of all new car deliveries from 2003. Despite a century and a half of trying though, battery technology for road vehicles hasn't progressed very far. Flywheels, supercapacitors and fuel cells are all attempts to provide alternative forms of autonomous electrically powered transport, spurred on by the battery impasse. They are all problematic in terms of weight, space or required infrastructure. But for public transport vehicles this really isn't a problem. By far the most technically efficient bus in energy terms is a trolleybus.
Trolleybuses have been around for almost as long as trams. Around the world there are as many trolley systems as tramways, and yet they seem to have been largely forgotten especially in Britain. Now, with new-found political commitment to public transport, there is a very real chance that they may return, at least to the streets of London.
Most of Britain struggles to maintain bus services in the deregulated regime that sees competition and not public service as the overriding ethic. In London, bus services are formally regulated to ensure widespread availability of services.
The Mayor's civil service arm that has responsibility for Transport for London, has, after years of research, decided that four schemes merit development into a high quality transit system. The opinion of the countries largest group of professional transport planners is that the best option for most of these schemes is trolleybuses running on 'high quality' routes with segregated, priority roadways wherever possible. They are the most cost effective, environmentally benign and efficient way of solving the problems of congestion and traffic related pollutants in the air.
Today's trolleybuses use hub motors to give very low floors that pull up level with dedicated stops, they're guided by special kerbs and are smoothly quiet - passenger friendly, in fact. If this sort of public transport offers a faster and more reliable alternative to private motoring, then car drivers will give up their anti-social habits. Congestion charging is going to be the stick, but the carrot is superbly designed street electric transit.
Electricity is the 'fuel' of the future because of its flexibility, its efficiency and its cleanliness. It can be, and will have to be, sourced from a wide variety of alternatives that are mostly impractical for direct use in vehicles.
Power stations are the best place for fuel cells, the electricity grid the best place for electricity supply and overhead wiring the best place for delivery. Not having a fuel source or generation equipment on board the vehicle saves weight, provides more space for passengers and reduces reliability problems. Whilst exotic solutions always attract attention in the quest for the holy grail of autonomous electric traction, the reality is that a trolleybus solution already provides the backbone of urban street transport in many capitals of the world like Athens, Sao Paulo and Moscow. There, and in 360 other cities around the world, trolleybuses, quietly, almost unnoticed, carry millions every day. And in the city, the trolleybus is the only proven cost effective and environmentally superior alternative to the diesel bus.
Where there's a need to do something drastic about the general environment in our cities, then electric public transport is the answer. Except for the densest of passenger numbers where trams are most suitable, then trolleybuses are the answer - electrify the buses!