Was it a transit vehicle or a financial vehicle? We probably will never know.
We have been covering the Chinese straddling bus or Transit Elevated Bus (TEB) for years, laughing at it and calling it vaporware, but early last August it got real, sort of, with a full scale version running down a test track. Most people thought that it was a terrible idea: “Look at the lengths humans go to not disturb our fragile car ecosystem.”
But it solved what one might call the Fordian Knot, named after the late Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who hated surface transit, saying, “Subways, subways subways, I don’t want those damn trolleys blocking the road.” Subways are expensive, and the TEB was going to cost a fifth as much without taking road space away from their beloved cars. Even transportation expert Jarret Walker gave it a left-handed compliment up under those criteria:
…if your starting point for urban design is that single-occupant cars, despite their extreme inefficiency in using scarce urban space, should be allowed to go anywhere at all, and that the surface plane should be designed solely for their convenience to the exclusion of all other citizens and needs, then this technology makes sense.
Then late last August, the Chinese state media started calling it nothing more than a big scam. I quoted:
Global Times and Sina have both claimed that the TEB is a fraudulent peer to peer (P2P) investment project aimed at scamming investors. The TEB is funded by P2P financing, which the government has already been cracking down on recently… The Global Times also attacks Song Youzhou, the designer of TEB, for only having an elementary school education.
But I still defended it, noting that “if the TEB is a scam, it is a pretty elaborate one.” The attack about Son Youzhou’s education bothered me; it seemed that the State was ganging up on the little guy. It seemed like a case of tall poppy syndrome, where people who stand out from the crowd have to be put in their place.
And now, it turns out, it’s a scam. According to the Financial Times,
On Sunday Chinese authorities said they had launched a probe into the company for alleged illegal fundraising through Huaying Kailai, an online financing platform founded by Mr Bai. [CEO of the Transit Elevated Bus Company]
He was one of 32 people working for Huaying Kailai arrested for using the bus to raise money illegally, after buying the rights to the bus from its inventor, probably the poor uneducated Song Youzhou. The authorities claim that this was not a vehicle for transporting people but for transporting money from investors to Mr. Bai.
Every good scam needs a gullible mark. In this case, people wishing for transit that wouldn't block their car https://t.co/VgYgpFMmN5— Oliver Moore (@moore_oliver) July 6, 2017
But was it a scam from the start, an impossible dream that would sucker in the drivers who hate buses and trolleys? Or was it a clever idea that went awry? We will probably never know.
And besides, the original 1968 design by Lester Walker was much better.