China’s trackless trams could revitalize city suburbs. They’re a cross between light rail and a city bus. They run on rubber tires instead of tracks but the ride is smoother than a bus due to stabilizing technology. The system is currently in use in the Chinese cities of Zhuzhou, Yibin and Yancheng.
The trams are called Autonomous Rapid Transit (ART) and are guided by the same technology as self-driving cars and instead of using overhead wires for power they top up their own batteries at each station stop.
Trackless trams are up to 10 times cheaper to build than a conventional light rail. They can be installed in weeks rather than months or years as no expensive, time-consuming rails are required in the road. Besides China, other countries such as Malaysia, Israel and Australia are drawing up plans for trackless trams.
According to the UAE news outlet National News, Dubai has also reached an agreement with Zhong Tang Sky Railway Group to explore new transport systems. Signed in June of last year, the early-stage deal with the Chinese company could deliver a new transport network to the emirate.
Experts believe trackless trams could be a catalyst for regenerating city suburbs by connecting these areas to city centers with fixed, fast transport links while replacing cars with a sustainable alternative.
1. Current urban challenges
There is an urgent need to rethink how city transport works. Congestion, emissions, and housing shortages are challenges that all cities are facing with ever higher complexity. In the mid-20th century, the introduction of cars opened huge opportunities for development beyond inner ring suburbs, creating the urban sprawl common to many modern cities.
There’s currently a need to redevelop the urban space so that long car-commutes are minimized. Trackless tram technology is less costly than light rail, faster and sleeker than buses, carbon-neutral and flexible. Installing trackless trams in the middle suburbs can improve access to public transport, reduce emissions, increase land value and encourage more people to move to these areas.
2. What are trackless trams?
Trackless trams have emerged from high-speed rail technology. Versions of trackless trams have been in development for almost 20 years, but in 2017 the Chinese Rail Corporation, CRRC, introduced an autonomously guided tram, a significant advance of the design and technology known as Autonomous Rapid Transit (ART).
ART has the ride quality and service characteristic of light rail, but at significantly less cost as it avoids the disruption caused by installing rail in the roadbed. The vehicles travel on rubber tires, guided autonomously using optical, radar and GPS technology. They are bi-directional, and have multiple carriages, as well as safety features and communication technologies that contribute to fleet management and ride quality.
3. China leading
With advances in battery and charging technologies, trackless trams operate without overhead wires and get a booster charge at dedicated stations while passengers board. ART has been operational in China since 2018, first in Zhuzhou, before expanding to Yibin and Harbin, with planning and construction of new systems underway in five other cities in China.
In 2020, a competing subsidiary of CRRC introduced the Digital Rapid Transit (DRT) trackless tram. The DRT vehicle is in operation in Lingnan Shanghai on two routes. It is magnetically guided and is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell or electric battery. The vehicle is narrower and slightly lighter than the ART and has different suspension. Both vehicles will be tested in Australia at the end of this year, and this should provide further insight into the implementation costs, operational characteristics, and requirements of both vehicles.
Peter Newman, a professor of sustainability at Curtin University in Perth, was one of the first non-Chinese transit experts to visit the factory in Zhuzhou, the City Monitor magazine reported. He went to Zhuzhou in August of 2018 when the tram was still being tested.
“I started looking around for alternatives to light rail and came upon an article about this new streetcar being developed in China,” Newman said. “Doing 70km an hour, it rode like a train. The ride quality convinced me this is the future of transit. All of the problems with buses are gone: the jerkiness, the slowness, the vibration.”
Upon his return from China, Newman co-authored a study and wrote a series of articles and papers, according to City Monitor magazine. Newman co-wrote an article published in the Journal of Transportation Technologies in 2019, which quantified the significant cost savings of trackless trams compared with light rail.
4. The importance of middle suburbs
In many metropolitan areas in developed countries, inner cities have largely been regenerated while outer suburbs in far-flung green fields are not yet ready for redevelopment. The urban fabric in middle suburbs, particularly along main roads, tends to be underutilized and undervalued. This is where trackless trams can help.
Planning and transport agencies need to identify potential mid-tier routes in the middle suburbs. Most often these are along main roads, where once-thriving neighborhood centers and shopping strips may be struggling to survive, while traffic volumes and road widening have made walking and cycling unsafe and unpleasant.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), when trains and trams transformed cities, the partnerships that created land value (much of which has been retained to this day) were mostly led by private capital. The car-based suburbs of the past 60 to 70 years of urban growth usually split their responsibilities: transport and main roads have mostly been public capital, while land development relies on private capital. Establishing partnerships between private sector entrepreneurs, local governments, communities and other agencies, would enable joint project and infrastructure development.
5. Public-private collaboration
The WEF has developed a net zero model for redeveloping middle suburbs through public-private collaboration called The Entrepreneur Rail Model. Developers could adapt this to include the electric systems being run by solar and batteries, in order to facilitate a shift to net zero carbon emissions. The model will need to include partnerships between developers, communities and local governments, as well as utilities, transport and transit agencies, operators of transport systems, and government regulatory and funding agencies. The Entrepreneur Rail Model sets out five steps.
- Certify the mid-tier transit systems that are emerging: there are barriers to market entry for trackless trams, due to limited knowledge of its performance and requirements. In Australia, as in most other countries around the world, vehicles need to be certified before they can be used as public transport. This certification should be expedited.
- Plan high-quality transit system corridors: a series of such plans are being developed around the world since Transport for London announced a policy called ‘Street Families’. The movement and place framework aims to create walkable, liveable centers. Such routes could be specified as potential transit corridors.
- Choose the station precincts where an area could become a 21st-century net-zero development: the precinct area could be ‘greenlined’, as suggested in a recent e-book called Greening the Greyfields. This should involve robust community engagement to enable partnerships to be formed with residents, businesses, developers, and urban design professionals. A design consultation involving visualization tools is a critical exercise for understanding and resolving competing interests.
- Establish an agency or cross-agency group that can provide the integrated design skills to deliver the Net Zero Corridor and its net-zero precincts: this would include affordable housing and new net zero technology that can be integrated into all buildings and local transport. Key technologies include a microgrid-based renewable energy that enables both sharing of the net zero power and recharge services for all-electric vehicles, micro-mobility, shuttle buses, cars and mid-tier transit.
- Plan for future expansion of the micro-grid: planners should make sure that solar and battery storage as well as electric vehicle recharging services can be shared. Once a corridor and its precincts are net zero the microgrids that manage each precinct can expand out into the surrounding suburbs.