How an elevator designed to go up solves major problems by going down

multi for metros
© ThyssenKrupp

In the introduction to his latest book, Paper, Mark Kurlansky explains that “technological inventions have always arisen from necessity.” There is a problem to be solved, and it is often done by applying existing technologies in different ways, often in ways that were not originally envisioned. Here's an example.

While many are obsessing about new horizontal transportation technology like self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles running on roads, in much of the world the real problems involve mass public transport and vertical movement. That’s why the new MULTI system from ThyssenKrupp (seen here on TreeHugger) is so interesting. Instead of being lifted by cables, in a MULTI, each cab is moved by its own linear induction motor, making it an autonomous vehicle running on rails, capable of going up and down as well as horizontally.

MULTI© ThyssenKrupp
CEO Andreas Schierenbeck notes that it was designed to go up:

MULTI was developed for tall buildings to double elevator shaft capacity, reduce elevator footprint, and offer vertical and horizontal movement to enable architects to construct taller, more creative and more user friendly structures.

Chris Williamson, on the other hand, is often thinking about ways to go down. His firm, Weston + Williamson, specializes in transportation design and is working on a number of stations for Crossrail, a 73 mile long line running under London that is one of the largest and most expensive infrastructure projects in the world. They somehow have to connect new transit stations to old stations and to the surface.

bank and monument© Transport for London

The images supplied by ThyssenKrupp do not come anywhere near to illustrating the complexity of the problem. If you have ever used the London Underground, those connections can be incredibly complex, often long and winding through narrow pedestrian tunnels that run up and down. I got totally lost in the maze between Monument and Bank stations and had to double back to find an exit, and must have climbed up and down a hundred stairs in the process. Imagine having a new tunnel underneath this mess and trying to find a place to drill a straight elevator shaft through it.

Chris Williamson's great insight is that the MULTI might be an interesting innovation for buildings above grade, but it would be brilliant below. So he did an elevator pitch to Schierenbeck and ThyssenKrupp, who needless to say, liked the idea a lot.

The MULTI can run both vertically and horizontally, so that it can thread its way through the mess of existing tunnels and shafts. It runs continuously, with a new cab showing up every few seconds, not quite like an escalator but certainly better than waiting for a lift, as they call elevators in the UK. Williamson explains:

This kind of innovation is key for future city design and could provide a game-changing solution to solve the mobility issues that so many underground networks now face. What’s more – it could also allow further growth of stations below the ground, making it possible to build new train lines underneath the existing ones, to increase capacity even further.

And the capacity numbers we are talking about are huge; 1.34 billion people use the underground each year. The busiest station, Waterloo, handles 95 million.

escalator in undergroundLloyd Alter/ escalator in underground/CC BY 2.0

Changing trains at one point in London, I watched an elderly couple trying to negotiate getting on an escalator, while crowds instantly piled up behind them. Urban populations are aging, and the old transportation systems were not designed to cope with this. Where I live, in Toronto, adding accessible elevators to subway stations is expensive and slow, but they just have to drill straight down and not very far.

In London it is just about impossible. In many ways, the MULTI is the answer for a universally accessible system; it runs continuously like an escalator but can accommodate all kinds of people of all ages and abilities like an elevator. It can snake its way through the underground mess instead of needing a straight shot.

Press conferenceLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

At the presentation and discussion in London,ThyssenKrupp CEO Schierenbeck concluded that the MULTI “offers a practical solution that could ease congestion in dozens of underground networks across the world; a thought that makes you realise its potential to be one of the most revolutionary new developments of our time.”

silly building designThyssenKrupp/Screen capture

Some might call that last line hyperbolic and an exaggeration; I would have earlier, particularly when it was just being pitched as a way of making taller and more efficient but also really silly looking buildings. but after hearing what Chris Williamson came up with, I suspect Andreas Schierenbeck is not exaggerating; architects, designers and planners have not yet begun to think of clever and unexpected ways to use this technology.

Lloyd Alter’s visit to London for the press conference and interviews was paid for by ThyssenKrupp.

How an elevator designed to go up solves major problems by going down
Because getting from A to B is not always a straight line, particularly in older cities.

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