Why drive to work when you can arrive in your own pedal-powered pod car, far above traffic? That’s the vision of a Canadian company called Shweeb, which hopes to soon begin installing what it calls the “most sustainable form of public transit” in cities around the world.
Hanging from rails up to 80 feet above the street, the Skysmart system uses a series of personal pods that run on either solar power or pedaling from the passengers inside. Unlike a train or bus, users can hop on immediately without waiting on a platform.
“It can move 10,000 people per hour with tremendous efficiency,” says Stephen Bierda from Shweeb. “What happens with conventional transit is it’s not on demand, so you have to plan your arrival at the station, and there are a lot of stops. That means your average speed is slower.”
Skysmart is also designed to provide a little exercise on the way to work. “You don’t have to pedal,” Bieda says. “But we want to gamify this and incentivize people to stay fit. We’ll let people pay less if they pedal, and allow people to travel six miles an hour faster. It’s a pretty good bonus to get people to interact on the pod.”
The pods come in different sizes that can hold two, five, or 12 people, and can also be connected to carry packages or other cargo. The guideways that hold the cars can also double as carriers for power lines and cables. “We’ve envisioned the guideway that the pod runs on to become a conduit for all things electrified,” Bierda says. “It’s a multi-purpose piece of infrastructure.”
Cyclists can throw a bike in the back of a pod, and ultimately, the company believes that the system will make it easier to bike on the ground by getting cars off the road. “It’s 3-D transport,” Bierda says. “That leaves the surface level–streets and sidewalks–for people to walk and cycle on.”
The system is at least 30% cheaper to build than other mass transit infrastructure, and fully renewably powered. It can also be tied to the grid to feed excess electricity back to the city. “We envision this as a public utility,” Bierda explains. “If it’s run like a utility, that also helps secure the air rights to build over streets, and parks, and parking lots.”
First built for an amusement park in New Zealand, the system won $1 million in Google’s 10^100 competition in 2010 for further development as a form of alternative transportation. The system will use tech from Google’s robocars to track the pods, and Google’s Mountain View campus will be one of the first to build a track. Some 22 other customers are also waiting in line.
The big question is whether something like this can really take off; planners started talking about personal rapid transit systems in the 1950s, but the idea hasn’t had much success. Shweeb plans begin building a demonstration site at Niagara Falls next year, to show cities exactly how the system can work, and then push for broader adoption.
“Transit authorities tend to be very slow to adopt, and they’re running up against a lot of political pressure to find ways to fund infrastructure,” Bierda says. “Our solution, because it’s lower cost, because it’s carbon neutral, because it’s providing human health benefits, this is the game-changer that will resonate. And we’re starting to see transit authorities looking at us as a viable way of changing the discourse on public transportation.”
The company is currently raising funds on Indiegogo to help build their first North American system.