If you take public transit, this scenario will be familiar to you.
After a lengthy wait in the freezing cold (or sweltering heat), the bus finally arrives. It was likely held up by rush-hour traffic.
You fight your way onto the bus through a mob of people trying to get off. When you eventually get on, you find yourself packed in like a sardine in a can, with somebody’s heavy bag poking into your back.
As the bus lurches away (throwing everyone into each other), you see a crowd of angry people, through the window, who couldn’t make it onto the bus.
So here’s a thought for you:
What if it was possible for you to get on the bus before it had even arrived?
What if it was possible for all of those other people to get off of the bus after it (and you) had already left?
Before I answer how that could be possible, let’s take a quick look at a bus.
Pretty simple, huh? You’ve seen a million of them before.
Okay, so here’s another hint:
That’s a pretty standard (but unusually high tech) truck and trailer combo. You’ve probably seen even more of those than you’ve seen buses. The notion of a standard container size, readily interchangeable and shippable, was absolutely revolutionary when it was invented a few decades ago. Now it is so normal that we don’t really notice them.
Let’s take a look at that truck again:
See the red markings? There’s really two components to a truck: a cab, which contains the driver’s compartment and an engine, and the interchangeable trailer.
Here’s another hint about where I’m heading with this. This is the same bus as above, but with some markings on it as well:
What if the driver’s compartment and the passenger compartment were two separate objects that could be connected interchangeably to each other?
The experience of taking public transit would be rather different than today.
You would arrive at your terminal and step directly into the passenger compartment (which would be heated or cooled by the terminal) and wait in your seat for the bus to arrive.
The doors would automatically close when the compartment was full. Multiple passenger compartments for a single route could be made available, so that people could choose between a faster departure time and a higher likelihood of obtaining a chair.
When your bus “arrives”, the old passenger compartment would be automatically offloaded into the terminal, where the passengers would disembark at their leisure. The same automated system would then load the compartment you were sitting in onto the bus, and off you would go.
Before you object about the complexity and expense of implementing a scheme like this, there are actually quite a few reasons why transit systems might actually want to do so.
- For long routes, a passenger compartment could be swapped between multiple drivers. Given that a driver can only operate on a route once they’ve been familiarized with it, and it takes less time to do so with a shorter route, this will allow a transit system much greater flexibility with scheduling – thus removing one particular blockage point.
- In addition, this will improve the frequency with which buses can pass any particular stop, which improves the passenger’s experience (especially in unpleasant weather!), even if it doesn’t directly speed up the time in transit.
- The same passenger compartments could be used on a wide variety of transit modes – there’s no reason why they couldn’t be loaded onto light rail or trains, allowing complete interoperability. On a longer route, your compartment could be swapped between buses and trains without your needing to switch vehicles.
- By standardizing the system, the buses themselves could be made cheaper and more readily maintainable. Currently most transit systems operate a wide variety of bus models, of varying ages. This increases maintenance costs and complexity (Anecdotally, I’ve seen much higher frequency of breakdowns in recent years where I live than I used to see in the past). Having a common standard for linkages would allow different manufacturers to bid on new purchases without adding new complexity to the system.
- This is also an excellent form of future-proofing. As better electric or hydrogen-powered models become available, only a portion of the bus would need to be replaced. When self-driving buses become feasible, the same scenario would apply.