North America

Chutes and Ladders: A high-tech and low-tech idea for subway stations



Companies like ThyssenKrupp have lately been developing maglev elevators: elevators powered by magnetic levitation rather than hoisted by cables. The possibility that maglev elevators might become widely used has created excitement because, unlike conventional elevators, maglev elevators could be used efficiently even in extremely tall buildings. Even more exciting, can move horizontally in addition to vertically, like a Wonkavator.

One of the most significant potential uses of maglev elevators, however, has been overlooked: their potential to clear subway platforms far more efficiently than normal elevators, and in some cases maybe even more efficiently than escalators or staircases.

Normal elevators, of course, are terrible at getting people out of crowded subway stations quickly. They tend to cause lineups (or scrums) to form outside their doors. This is because only one elevator can operate within an elevator shaft at any one time.

Maglev elevators however could act more like vertical escalators. They can allow multiple elevators to run within the same elevator shaft, which means that so long as you have at least two elevator shafts side by side, one with elevators going upwards and the other with elevators going downwards, multiple elevators can circulate so as to reduce lineups. As soon as one elevator has started to move upwards, another can immediately arrive and open its doors to let in new passengers.

This does not necessarily mean that it will be any faster to use the elevator – though it could become much faster, in cases where the elevator shaft spreads out horizontally at surface level in order to allow multiple elevators to let people off and on at the same time. But what it does mean is that people would be able to get off of their subway platform and onto an elevator more quickly. This, in turn, could mean more comfort and safety within crowded subway stations, and the ability to have trains pulling into stations at shorter intervals.

These elevators could also be very useful for disabled subway passengers, not only by reducing platform and elevator crowding but also because the ability for elevators move horizontally as well as vertically might, in some subway stations, mean that passengers would no longer need to transfer from one elevator to another in order to travel between street level and the subway platform.

One type of station where maglev elevators might be particularly useful could be for trains or bus lines that run in the median of a highway. Maglev elevators could help people access these stations by moving up, across, and then back down (or, if the elevator ran in a tunnel under the highway, down, across, and back up) in order to get people from the side of the highway to the station.

Eventually, perhaps, maglev elevators could also help allow subway lines to be built deeper underground, and at odd angles to the streets above them. This might, in some cases, allow subway lines to be built as diagonal shortcut routes below their cities’ grid-patterned streets, deep enough to avoid the basements of the buildings above them.




Of course, the use of maglev elevators remains annoyingly speculative at this point. In certain situations, there may be lower-tech ways to achieve similar goals:

  1. Retractable staircases

Downtown subway stations tend to have passengers getting off trains in the morning and back on trains in the evening. As a result, they have a much greater need to clear their platforms quickly in the morning than they do in the evening, and a much greater need to provide spacious platforms in the evening than they do in the morning. Having some of their staircases be retractable (verybasic examples can be seen hereor here), so as to provide a greater number of staircases to help clear platforms in the morning, but fewer staircases taking up precious platforms space in the evening, could perhaps be a decent idea

2. Space beneath staircases or escalators

Another idea to address the trade-off between the number of staircases (or escalators) and the amount of platform space available could be to better utilize space beneath staircases or escalators. Here’s an example of space being used below an airport escalator, for example:


3. Actual Ladders

The worst, but also most fun, solution of all could be to have a bunch of short, sheltered ladders to allow people to climb up and out of a station at the same time.


In theory, ladders are the most space-efficient way to move upwards. In theory, you could have hundreds of ladders fit in a single subway station, allowing a platform to be cleared immediately. Theory is great.



North America

All Transit Articles

Some of these ideas are much sillier than others. I’ll leave you to decide:

Transit Oases
Car-Sharing Vehicles Doubling as Sheltered Bus Stops
The Three Card Monty 
Next Man Up: The Passenger-Driven Bus 
Bus-Bike Lanes: Can I Interest You in a Time-Share? 
Trolley-Trucks and Autonomous Cargo Handling 
Like Night and Day (E-Commerce Transit)
An Electric Car/Bike Lane Plan, for Cities like Toronto 
Toronto’s Railways to Nowhere (Semi-Autonomous Cars)  
The Witching Hour 
RoRoRo Your Car 
Superhighway in a Box 
Numerology and Public Transit 
The Private Sector
The Intersection of Yonge and Danforth
Devil’s Advocate: Elon Musk 
Travel by Hibernacula 
Night Moves 
Chutes and Ladders 
Tortoise and Hare, 2K19
The Lucky Bus
The Roombus
The Parkway
The 1.5-Decker Bus
Gaga For Gondolas
Customs-Built Transit


North America

Transit Oases

One of the most fitting aspects of the phrase “transit deserts” – areas drastically underserved by public transit – is the mirage-like effect you get when, straining your eyes toward the suburban horizon, you trick yourself into thinking that the headlights of an approaching car is actually the bus you desperately want to arrive.

Today, however, as transit apps get more accurate, the era of transit mirages may be nearing an end. You can now simply look at your phone, or in some cases at a television screen at your bus stop, to see when the next bus will arrive.

In many cases, transit apps might also put an end to another desert-like quality of public transit: waiting in uncomfortably cold or hot temperatures. Equipped with accurate information about when the next bus is likely to approach, passengers might have the option of waiting for their bus indoors a short walk away from their bus stop.

This might have significant implications for the public or private sector. The public sector could, perhaps, create transit oases: indoor waiting areas that passengers could enter by using their transit passes to pre-pay their bus fare, or outdoor parkette spaces where people could wait with shade, nice surroundings, picnic tables, etc.* Or the private sector could provide a similar service, maybe combining transit waiting areas with laundromats, convenience stores, cafes, etc.

*[Alternatively, they could have car-sharing cars parked near bus stops, which would double as sheltered bus-waiting areas. That way the cars could also be available for use as “first-mile/last-mile” vehicles, in areas where walking to and from bus stops can be difficult]

Because some transit apps have even begun providing information about how crowded each approaching bus is, having a more comfortable waiting area of this sort could also give passengers the option of waiting a bit longer than they need to, in order to wait for a less crowded bus to arrive. This could be very useful: public buses tend to bunch fairly close together, and the front bus in each grouping tends to be much more crowded than the buses further behind it. With transit apps, people could simply wait to get on a less crowded bus, without taking the risk that the bus further behind will be just as crowded or will not arrive any time soon.

Similarly, transit apps can give passengers real-time information about express buses, which could help allow passengers to let a normal bus go by in order to wait for an express bus approaching after it.

Another common challenge in transit deserts, where waiting times are often long and uncertain, and where bus journeys are often long as well, and often require multiple transfers, and often involve seniors or babies, is the lack of bathrooms at bus stops, and the lack of accessible public bathrooms in general. Transit oases could be a godsend, then, for those who cannot hold their water like a camel.














North America

The Car-Sharing Sheltered Bus Stop and Seasonal Bike Lane

In recent years there have been two excellent new technologies, car apps and transit apps, which have nevertheless been unable to successfully solve traffic problems. Transit apps, which tell you when buses or trains are coming and, in some cases, tell you how crowded each bus is*, are useful but are still no antidote to challenges such as getting to and from bus stops or waiting for buses in bad weather. Car apps, which can summon lifts or carpools or make it easy to rent a car, tend to do little or nothing to alleviate traffic jams, and can also be relatively costly or inconvenient, especially in bad weather when there are no vehicles nearby, or when demand for lifts outstrips supply.

*This is very useful because buses tend to bunch fairly close together, and the front bus in each grouping tends to be much more crowded than the buses behind them. With this information, people can simply wait a tiny bit longer to get on a less crowded bus, without taking the risk that the bus further behind will be just as crowded or will not arrive any time soon.

What might be needed, therefore, is a way to use these new technologies to get to and from transit, especially in bad weather, and make it easier to wait for buses in bad weather, and do so without adding to traffic jams that block more efficient modes of transportation such as buses or streetcars or (in good weather) bikes.

Here, then, is a possible solution: have car-sharing cars double as sheltered bus stops in bad weather.


Such a system could have a number of advantages:

  1. In suburban areas where people do not live near bus stops and where streets are not designed well for pedestrians, the car-sharing cars could be used to help people get to and from bus stops.
  2. In the event of an unexpected delay in the bus or streetcar system (e.g. a subway line is temporarily shut down or a streetcar line is temporarily obstructed, leading buses to become overcrowded) or if there is a sudden change in the weather (e.g. a sudden rainstorm), or if you have a personal emergency (e.g. you really have to go to the bathroom and your bus is late) you could have the option of simply paying to drive a car-sharing car to your destination
  3. the car-sharing car would not necessarily need to be a conventional car, but could instead be a tiny one-seater car, or an electric-assist pedal-car, or even an enclosed bicycle or tricycle. This would work very well on streets where there is a bike lane or a street-parking lane. Indeed, this would be ideal for a street in which a bike lane becomes a parking lane during winter. People in the winter want street parking so that they don’t have to worry about slipping on ice, and want sheltered bus stops where they can stay warm while they wait (often for a long time, since bus delays are more common in winter). When the weather is nice, on the other hand, people do not need street parking or sheltered bus stops, so the parking lane could instead become a bike lane. This bike lane could then be used not just by regular bicycles, but also by the car-share enclosed bicycles and tricycles and pedal-cars and one-seaters.
  4. The cars would not contribute too much to traffic jams or air pollution, as the cars would be used mainly to get to and from buses, and as most of the cars could be very small, lightweight, and possibly electric or pedal-powered or both.
  5. If they are electric, the car-sharing bus stop parking spots could perhaps double as charging stations. A car-sharing sheltered bus stop charging station might be an ideal charging station from both an economic and environmental point of view, because slow-charging batteries is better than fast-charging and as lightweight vehicles are far better than conventional electric cars
  6. The cars could perhaps also be vehicles that would facilitate carpooling. You could, for instance, have a car-sharing van or minibus that would serve as a sheltered bus  stop but could also be driven itself (if the bus or streetcar was running late, etc. etc.), if the passengers were willing to split the cost of driving it and if one of the passengers is willing and registered to drive it and then drop it off at another bus stop

It is not just car-sharing technologies that could make this idea viable, but also transit apps.

By having the cars equipped with these apps, people will able to use them as sheltered bus stops without needing to have a clear view of the horizon to see if a bus is approaching. Even though these cars would ideally be located immediately next to bus stops, the ability to know in advance when a bus is coming means that if necessary they could be located a bit further away from the bus stops, on an adjacent side street, without the risk of people missing their bus.

That might not even be needed though, since the car-sharing bus stops might not need to take up much more space than the current public bicycle-sharing systems often do, particularly if one-seaters or pedal-cars are used. (In Toronto, there are already 360 public bicycle-sharing stations, even though few people use them in the winter or during heat waves). People would then be able to use their transit passes to unlock the car’s door by prepaying their bus fare, so that the cars would not be misused too much.

So, if anyone influential happens to be reading this, please consider it the next time you are shivering or sweating at a bus stop. Oh, you don’t take the bus? The next time your Uber is stuck in traffic then.









North America

The Three Card Monty: A Bus, Bike, and One-Seater Car plan for cities like Scarborough

One-seater electric automobiles may be on the rise, thanks to vehicle-sharing apps and range improvements in batteries. It is possible that these one-seaters will be a slothful and anti-social mode of transportation, like they are in Wall-E. Perhaps more likely, however, is that one-seaters will facilitate transportation that is actually more healthy and social than our existing four-wheel-dominated system. One-seaters may promote cycling, either via velomobiles (one-seater lightweight pedal-cars with an electric motor so that cyclists don’t have to break a sweat going uphill) or via the creation of more bike lanes in cities with relatively extreme climates (lanes which one-seaters would have mostly to themselves whenever the weather is not friendly to bicycles). One-seaters may also promote transit ridership, by making it easier to get to or from stations.

How then should cities prepare for one-seaters? While it would be nice if streets had three separate lanes for buses, bicycles, and one-seaters, this is not likely to be politically viable any time soon. Cities may need to be more creative, and more compromising, in seeking ways to promote one-seaters as an alternative for normal cars without unduly limiting transit or bicycle usage.

One possible way of doing this would be a sort-of seasonal three card monty, using a bus lane and an adjacent bike lane. When the weather is bad – say, during winter or a long heat wave – one-seaters would share the bus lane with buses and use the bike lane as a parking lane. This would allow a senior citizen to park close to his or her destination (or his or her bus stop), to avoid slipping on ice. It would also allow one-seaters to overtake buses at bus stops: if the bus pulls up to the curb at stops, a one-seater could pass the bus on its left. Similarly, it would give one-seaters the option of pulling over to let a bus overtake them.

When the winter or heat wave ends, the one-seater-parking lane would become a bike lane, usable by bicycles and one-seaters both. This would create less traffic for buses, at a time when the weather is nice enough to make walking to and waiting at bus stops a convenience. One-seaters and cyclists would however also be able to use the bus lane in order to overtake slower cyclists ahead of them, and to overtake buses at bus stops. Indeed, at times when buses do not run too frequently (nights, weekends), the bus lane would be left more or less open for one-seaters and the bike lane more or less open for bicycles.

It is true that bicycles would, comparatively, be the losers in this relationship. They would have to give up their bike lanes during the winter (or, in very hot climates, during the summer), and share them with one-seaters during the rest of the year. Nevertheless, given how few streets currently have bike lanes, cyclists might still benefit hugely from this relationship, particularly in climates in which bicycling tends to be a seasonal pursuit.


Let’s use a real-world example of where such a system could maybe be effective: Scarborough, Ontario. Scarborough is a suburb of Toronto, where the weather and distances people travel can be difficult for cyclists in the winter – and often in summer as well.

Unlike Toronto’s other suburbs, the shape of Scarborough’s coastline is slanted, giving the city’s main cycling path, the Gatineau hydro corridor (image above, map below), a diagonal shortcut route through the fairly strict grid pattern of the city’s streets. In a few years this corridor will be linked with the city’s newest half-subway line, the Eglinton Crosstown. The hydro/cycling corridor already connects, more or less, to a another subway line (at Kennedy Station), a hospital, a university, and, via the Don Valley, to downtown Toronto.


Another, narrower diagonal hydro corridor, meanwhile, which nearly links up perpendicularly with the Gatineau around Lawrence East SRT station (which may eventually become a SmartTrack GO Train station, even if the SRT rail line is closed and is not replaced with an LRT along the same route), could become a shortcut route in another direction.

If one-seater lanes were built in these diagonal hydro corridors, and if a three card monty bus/bike/one-seater system were implemented on a number of Scarborough’s main streets intersecting these corridors, then the suburb’s transit, cycling, and driving might be significantly improved. Ideally, it will one day become easy to ride a bicycle or a velomobile from U of T Scarborough campus all the way to U of T in the heart of downtown T.









North America

Next Man Up: The Passenger-Driven Bus  

Busses can be driven by bus drivers, by computers, or by passengers. Bus drivers are the most sensible option, but are expensive in places where busses are forced to crawl along in traffic jams instead of getting their own designated lanes. Computers are the cheapest option, but are creepy and may not be ready to operate safely in bustling or wintry cities for many years yet, if ever.

The idea of having passenger-driven busses, however, has never even been discussed as far as I can tell. And probably with good reason, since the idea appears to be ridiculous. Ridiculous ideas are at least interesting though, so: let’s discuss how a passenger-driven bus might actually work.

The first step would be to create a bus so easy to drive that anyone with a driver’s license could do so without having to face a steep learning curve. Busses are already not so difficult to drive, so this is not really beyond the realm of plausibility, unlikely though it may be.

If buses were also to be equipped with a comparatively low level of automation — for instance, if the bus were able to automatically keep within its lane, pull up to the curb at bus stops, change or merge lanes when directed to do so, make turns at certain specified intersections, pull in to bus stations,  etc. – then operating a bus could perhaps become as easy as driving a car. If you were to give these buses their own separated bus lanes they might even become easier to drive than a car.

Express bus routes, which stop only at bus stations rather than making many stops along the way, would be easier to drive too, and might also help to entice passenger-drivers given that such routes would not take as much time to drive.

Alternatively, or additionally, if the bus simulations that trainee bus drivers already use were to become cheaper, better, and ubiquitous, many more people could learn to drive conventional busses.

The second step would be to create a service, a sort-of car-sharing app for buses, that would ensure that only designated drivers would be able to turn on the buses’ ignition and drive them. The driver would schedule a bus route from one bus station to another, and be paid based on how far or how many other passengers he or she drives. Upon arrival at the destination bus station, the driver-passenger would park the bus – or, perhaps, the bus would park itself – leaving it there for either another passenger-driver or a professional bus driver to use.

By doing this, the supply of bus drivers could be greatly increased, thereby allowing for more frequent bus services. It might, in addition, allow for cheaper bus services, since passenger-drivers might be willing to accept lower wages, as they would be simultaneously benefiting from being passengers as well as drivers. Ideally, passenger-drivers would not end up replacing or undercutting professional drivers’ wages, although of course it is plausible that they would do so.

One question, obviously, is how such a system could be profitable if the buses end up sitting unused for long stretches of time after one driver leaves and before the next driver arrives. The answer is that the system would not work in that case; it would only work if the supply of drivers was large and consistent enough that the buses would not remain idle for too long. Nevertheless, because paying drivers is such a large share of the cost of buses, they might be able to remain idle for some time at least before becoming unprofitable.

Moreover, steps might be taken to limit buses’ idleness or increase the utility of their idleness. Dynamic market pricing might be effective: whenever a bus becomes idle, the wages offered to passenger-drivers could increase in order to induce drivers to come and drive it. If nobody steps up to take the wheel even then, a professional bus driver could be summoned instead. 

Idle buses or minibuses, meanwhile, might be able to serve as portable, air-conditioned or heated bus stops on streets which allow street parking or have bus turnouts, which could be useful in hot, cold, or stormy weather.

The concept of passenger-drivers might, however, be more likely to begin in carpools or vancabs or minibuses, rather than in full-sized buses. This is because there are so many more people who are able and willing drive a car than a bus, and because it is easier to park a car than a bus for times when the vehicle is idle. Lately BMW, for example, has begun to offer a combination car-sharing/ride-sharing service, intended for people who want to be ride-sharing drivers but do not own a car.  It is possible that in some cases this service will be used by passenger-drivers, drivers who are going to destinations they were already heading towards themselves.

Still, such a service would not have the same positive impact as buses. Carpools carry many fewer passengers and take up much more road space per passenger than buses. Buses – especially electric trolleybuses– can be much cheaper and cleaner than even the most efficient carpools.

The purpose of a passenger-driven bus would be to offer, in effect, a compromise between the affordability and scalability of computer-driven busses and the viability and desirability of human-driven ones. It would make use of the advantages of car-sharing and ride-sharing technologies – the ability to smoothly match the supply of vehicles and drivers to demand – but avoid their primary disadvantage; namely that cars, even carpools, tend to be extremely inefficient and costly compared to busses.

If the idea were to actually work, it would allow cheaper, more frequent bus service options to supplement (though hopefully not undercut) the more expensive existing bus services driven by professional bus drivers. And it might achieve this without the use of robots.

Okay, it’s true, this idea sounds crazy. (Though not as crazy as some). It is basically the transit equivalent of self-checkout machines at grocery stores.

…But then again, almost anyone can drive a bus, right?






North America

Bus/Bike Lanes: Can I Interest You in a Time-Share?

The idea of having shared bus-bike lanes has been raised in a number of cities, including Montreal. Not surprisingly, such lanes have tended to be unsatisfactory for both parties involved. People in busses do not like driving slowly behind cyclists. Cyclists do not like busses looming behind them.

What has not been tried, however (at least, as far as I can tell, according to Google) is a bus-bike time-share lane, in which busses get the lane when the weather is bad and cyclists get the lane when the weather is good. Such a lane might be a little bit tricky to sort out when the weather changes suddenly from good to bad (more on this in a moment), but in general it might work very well, since when the weather is bad most people do not want to ride their bikes much, whereas when the weather is good people are willing to wait longer at bus stops.

I imagine a bus-bike time-share lane working, perhaps, as follows:

  • During the three winter months, no cyclists are allowed to use the lane: it is a bus-only lane
  • During long heat waves, no cyclists are allowed to use the lane: it is a bus-only lane
  • In spring, summer, and fall, busses can only use the lane when the weather is bad (say, below 5 degrees or above 25 degrees, maybe adjusted for humidity, smog, shade, wind, rain, ice, etc.)
  • At times when the weather is intermediate (neither winter nor a long heat wave nor good weather), the lane works as a shared bus-bike lane. If, however, the weather gets very bad at such times (say, for e.g., above 30 and humid) busses can ring a special bell when there is a cyclist in front of them, forcing cyclists to pull over, stop, and let the bus pass.
  • Cyclists can check an app to see if, at any given moment, busses are using the time-share lane

Of course, a lane of this kind would not be ideal. No time-share in the history of humankind has ever been considered ideal. Better would be for every main street to have a lane for transit and another separated lane for cycling. But that would mean scoring big victories against cars, and this does not seem likely to happen anytime soon in North American cities, most of which have large suburbs and a lot of very hot and/or cold weather.

For such cities, having a weather-dependent time-sharing bus-bike lane may not be ideal, but it could still be an ideal compromise.