Bring Back the Trolley Bus

CC BY 2.0. Wikipedia

After Derek showed his ElectRoad's wireless charging system for buses that puts a big continuous coil in the road, I wondered the same thing I do with all wireless charging systems: why are we filling our homes and now our roads with giant magnetic fields? I know that the dangers of EMF are seriously disputed, but if it is going to charge a bus, these are BIG HONKING POWERFUL magnetic fields.

And I wondered, not for the first time, why do we make life so complicated? Why not bring back the trolley bus? They work in Vancouver, and quite a few cities in Europe and South America. Why the big investment in more expensive and less efficient technology like wireless?

toronto trolley

TTC/Public Domain

I remember riding on them when I was a kid, before Toronto tore them out. The complaints were that they were hard to manage and that the cables were a mess. Kris De Decker of Low Tech Magazine wrote a few years back:

fixing overhead cables

© R. Hill donated to Transit Toronto

Compared to diesel buses, trolleybuses do have a couple of disadvantages. A trolleybus is more manoeuvrable than a tram, but less so than a diesel bus. If the road is being repaired or rebuilt in a street where trolleybuses pass, chances are that the line has to be discontinued temporarily. A diesel bus can easily be re-routed. Similar to trams, trolleybuses also cannot overtake each other.
The most important drawback of trolley systems is the need for overhead cables. They are generally regarded as ugly and meet protest. Especially at crossroads the cable network can be dense and hard to ignore. Similar to trams, the "tracks" of trolleybuses have points, but the whole mechanism of these hangs in the air. We adore wireless technology and that is probably the reason why trolleybuses are regarded as a ridiculous and inferior technology, a relic from the past.

modern trolley

Low Tech Magazine/via

But now, most new trolleys are hybrid, with batteries that let them go short distances, get around problems and get through intersections when the poles come off the wires. Other designs have flywheel tech to store energy.

In parts of Europe and South America, the trolleys have been kept running and networks have even been expanded. The poles and wires are better looking these days, too. And, they can be installed quickly without tearing up the road.

industrial trolley

In Russia and Ukraine they even used trolley tech for industrial and freight purposes; the infrastructure could be shared.

bumper car

© Scott Olson/Getty Images/ Barack and Sasha Obama, 2007

For that matter, we could bring back bumper cars, which could have little batteries for the last mile but spend most of their time connected to overhead power running autonomously. This guy liked them.

Of course I am sort of tongue in cheek about the bumper cars. But I do find that we keep looking for the most complicated and expensive solutions to problems when the the tried and true solutions have been around forever and work quite well. Electric trolley buses are not perfect but they exist now, they are cheaper, cleaner and quieter than diesel, and they really should be brought back.