The Rise of the Guided Busway
The inhabitants of parts of Haifa, a city in northern Israel, are excited about a new rapid transit bus service that has just opened. What's special about it is that it is guided by optical strips along special bus lanes, meaning that the driver doesn't always have to, er, drive.
Haifa is following the lead of Istanbul, after its Metropolitan Municipality purchased 50 of the bi-articulated vehicles for its own Metrobus project.
The original buses, from which both these public transport systems take their inspiration, are called Phileas, and were developed in Eindhoven, Holland. They are named after the protagonists in Jules Verne's adventure classic, Around the World in 80 Days, Phileas Fogg.
The Phileas concept has evolved somewhat before reaching Haifa. Whereas the former were all electric buses, these are mostly diesel.
There were already many ways of getting around in Haifa, including 'share taxis' that run along some bus routes but do not have an official schedule, mini-buses called 'Shkhunatit', and 'GetTaxi', an app linked to a 50-strong taxi service that allows users to identify and summon the nearest cab directly.
To this, four weeks ago, has been added 'Metronit', to the delight of thousands of passengers who can travel for free (for a trial six-month period) knowing that they will arrive on time.
"The Tel Aviv Metropolitan area isn't accustomed to this kind of efficiency in transportation yet," said Transportation Minister, Yisrael Katz, clearly delighted that Haifa has for once stolen a march on the much larger city, and praising Haifa as the first region in Israel to take on such an advanced, quality-service public transportation system.
"I hope that the Metronit's operation will change the reality of transportation in the Haifa metropolitan area, which will be a model to other cities in Israel and will encourage the use of public transportation," he added.
The rapid transit network travels 40 km (25 miles) between the Haifa and the Krayot suburbs and consists of 100 18-meter buses, each with the capacity for 150 passengers.
Does the guidance system mean that the bus drivers will be out of a job? No, a driver is still needed for safety reasons, but this rapid transit system does have many advantages.
84 of Haifa's buses are allegedly efficient diesel, but six are hybrids. The original Dutch Phileas buses were all electric, charged by magnets underneath the road.
If they could be electric, any pollution would be displaced to the point of electricity generation (if non-renewable) rather than fouling air quality in the city streets, and if charged from magnets while in operation, as they were in Eindhoven to start with, the batteries can be smaller and lighter.
Guided busways are likely to be more efficient, faster and punctual. Passengers love them. In other words they are more like a tram, but not as expensive to install.
This helps to explain why guided busways are becoming increasingly popular in cities around the world.
One of the most successful of these takes passengers northwards to and from the venerable British university city of Cambridge, running along the former track of an old railway line.
Its specially designed buses can travel both on the guided tracks and on the roads.
Joseph Whelan, Head of Passenger Transport Services at Cambridgeshire County Council, is extremely happy with the scheme, that has been operating for over two years now.
"The system was opened around 10 years after it was first conceived, planned and constructed, as part of a corridor-wide transport study undertaken by the national government that recommended road improvements, shifting freight transport onto rail and the provision of a bus rapid transit system," he said.
He added that much of the impetus for its construction was to serve new employment premises including a new biomedical research and clinical medicine campus to the south of Cambridge. This will house a relocated AstraZeneca facility that will be home to some 2,000 staff by 2016. The busway will also serve a new town and expand the economic opportunities around Cambridge city and beyond. "It underpins the growth agenda," he said.
Its existence means that development can take place without putting too much extra traffic stress on the roads. This has given the Council the conviction that the project would offer value for money.
Three routes, run by two separate operators, Stagecoach and Whippet Coaches, carry around 3 million passengers per year, he says. Passengers can buy their tickets beforehand and use an electronic Smartcard.
A bridleway and track has also been constructed alongside the entire guided busway, popular with many who cycle to work, school or for leisure.
Other benefits of the busway include a boost in visitors to the historic market town of St Ives. Importantly, the busway system will link into the new Cambridge Science Pak Station to the north of Cambridge itself and provide an important interchange to rail services locally and to London.
The area's expansion also includes a new town, Northstowe, along the bus route, with the first of 10,000 homes starting construction in the near future.
"We've also seen much interest from around the world," says Whelan proudly. "We have had visitors from Sweden, the Middle East, New Zealand and Australia."
Officials from Haifa city visited Cambridge to see for themselves how the system was to work, as part of their research for designing their Metronit system.
Like other administrators of guided busways, Whelan is now a champion. "They are much cheaper than rail, metro or trams, as well as being more flexible," he says.