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Leon Kaye headshot

China’s Straddling Bus Slams into a Great Wall of Ridicule

By Leon Kaye

Last week, a city in northeastern China rolled out a futuristic 'straddling bus,' formally known as a transit elevated bus (TEB). It's not quite a bus as it needs rails in order to move. And its massive size doesn't allow for a flexible route similar to that of a typical city bus. But the potential is its purported scale: This behemoth promised to hold over a thousand passengers while allowing two lanes of traffic to pass beneath. Nicknamed the “batie,” its test run also scored props for being emissions-free as it ran on battery power.

A number of media outlets, including TriplePundit, covered the test run last week. And some analysts said the technology could revolutionize urban transport.

The enthusiasm did not last long, however. Shortly after it completed its test run in the city of Qinhuangdao, publications including the Financial Times questioned the efficacy of this form of transport. FT questioned the financing behind batie, starting with the haggling between its inventor and the developer of this huge elevated bus.

Meanwhile the concept was viciously criticized on social media, particularly on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo. One blog even labeled batie as a financial scam.

A writer with CityLab detailed how batie’s promoters wilted as criticism mounted, backtracking on their hyped claims and finally saying the launch was really a test run for the vehicle’s braking system.

Others compared batie to Ezubo, a peer-to-peer lending platform that Chinese officials shut down earlier this year amid Ponzi scheme accusations.

And when Xinhua, China’s official news agency, visited what was reportedly batie’s factory, all they found was a sprawling pile of dirt. The BBC dug even further into doubts over batie, going beyond some of the obvious shortcomings. A questionable business model, the dubious history of the companies affiliated with this venture and a once bustling showroom that is now shuttered have all contributed to the conclusion that batie has no future.

A big part of batie’s problem was the way in which it was rolled out. The initial test run was only about 300 meters (984 feet) long with an even longer trail of over-promises and hyperbole. Contrast that to the first test run of California’s hyperloop, which scored its fair share of enthusiasm but overall was presented as a single step toward the future – not the future itself.

The backers of batie opened the door to unrelenting scrutiny by overselling this vehicle’s potential. Anyone who looks at the pictures can see a vehicle that would not be able to navigate around corners. The need to have rail installed would still require a significant amount of investment in infrastructure. Cities would also need to construct special platforms so passengers could board and exit. And batie would be useless on roads with low overpasses or pedestrian walkways above the street.

Sure, on some wide streets in major cities, this type of train/tank/bus could probably work. But plenty of testing remains on the agenda, including how harried drivers would react if this aircraft carrier-like structure suddenly loomed overhead on their race to the office.

The short-lived excitement over batie was not necessarily that a hulking bus-rail hybrid would save the world, but that it could spur new innovations, from battery technology to the development of more lightweight materials. But the acrimony and back-stabbing that has come out of this test run shows what can happen when arrogance and crass self-promotion get in the way of offering real solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Image credit: New China TV/YouTube Screenshot

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye