The O-Bahn Busway – Obscure Transit For The Masses

Around the world, governments and city planners have long struggled with the issue of transport. Getting people where they need to be in a timely fashion is key to making a city a comfortable, attractive place to live. As far as public transport is concerned, this typically consists of buses on the roads, and trams and trains on rails.

Down in the city of Adelaide, Australia, things get a little muddled, however. Nestled in a river valley lies a special  transportation network known as the O-Bahn, where buses ride on concrete rails and the drivers can even take their hands off the wheel. The system remains a rarity worldwide, and was spawned by a perfect storm of conflicting requirements.

A Child of Circumstance

In the 1970s, the South Australian government found itself backed into a corner. Facing a booming population in the north-eastern suburbs, new transport links with greater capacity were needed to get people to the central business district. Original plans from the 1960s had called for more freeways to be built all over the city to solve the problem. In the face of stiff public opposition, legislation was passed in 1970 blocking the construction of any new freeways for a full decade, forcing the government to consider alternatives.

O-Bahn buses passing at speed near Stephens Terrace. Buses formerly reached speeds up to 100 km/h on the network; this was dropped to 85 km/h in 2012, adding 20 seconds to the average run.

Despite plans being shelved, a corridor of land stretching from the city to the north-east had already been acquired for freeway construction. This was retained, and studies were commissioned to determine the best transportation solution to suit the needs of the area. The “North East Adelaide Public Transport Review” suggested light-rail or a busway would be the best solution.

Initial plans were proposed to link the north-east with a light-rail tramway that would connect with the existing tramline from the city proper to Glenelg in the west. However, the City of Adelaide protested the plan, believing that extending the existing tramline to the east would damage the city’s carefully planned structure.  Plans were made to rectify this by running part of the line underground, massively increasing costs, and the proposal was shelved.

It was at this time, the guided busway in Essen, Germany came to the attention of the state government. Aiming to help reduce congestion by allowing buses to share tram tunnels, it began as a demonstration which later developed into the Spurbus network. The system offered lower cost and higher flexibility than light rail, and avoided the need to carve up the city to hook in to the existing light rail network. Had Adelaide laid out its existing heavy or light rail networks differently, the O-Bahn might not have gotten a look in. However, back in the early 1980s, it was an easy solution in a sea of difficult choices.

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Automate The Freight: When The Freight Is People

Before I got a license and a car, getting to and from high school was an ordeal. The hour-long bus ride was awful, as one would expect when sixty adolescents are crammed together with minimal supervision. Avoiding the realities going on around me was a constant chore, aided by frequent mental excursions. One such wandering led me to the conclusion that we high schoolers were nothing but cargo on a delivery truck designed for people. That was a cheery fact to face at the beginning of a school day.

What’s true for a bus full of students is equally true for every city bus, trolley, subway, or long-haul motorcoach you see. People can be freight just as much as pallets of groceries in a semi or a bunch of smiling boxes and envelopes in a brown panel truck. And the same economic factors that we’ve been insisting will make it far more likely that autonomous vehicles will penetrate the freight delivery market before we see self-driving passenger vehicles are at work with people moving. This time on Automate the Freight: what happens when the freight is people?

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GuerillaClock Could Save This City Thousands

They say necessity is the mother of invention. But if the thing you need has already been invented but is extremely expensive, another mother of invention might be budget overruns. That was the case when [klinstifen]’s local government decided to put in countdown clocks at bus stops, at a whopping $25,000 per clock. Thinking that was a little extreme, he decided to build his own with a much smaller price tag.

The project uses a Raspberry Pi Zero W as its core, and a 16×32 RGB LED matrix for a display. Some of the work is done already, since the bus system has an API that is readily available for use. The Pi receives the information about bus schedules through this API and, based on its location, is able to determine the next bus arrival time and display it on the LED matrix. With the custom 3D printed enclosure and all of the other material, the cost of each clock is only $100, more than two orders of magnitude less expensive.

Hopefully the local government takes a hint from [klinstifen] and decides to use a more sane solution. In the meantime, you might be able to build your own mass transit clock that you can use inside your own house, rather than at the train station, if you’re someone who has a hard time getting to the bus stop on time.

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TrainLight: Transit Info At A Glance

In a world of sensory overload, sometimes it’s nice to get the information you need without a bunch of clutter. [Savage] has created an attractive and minimalist system to display the current wait times for specific trains in his San Francisco neighborhood.

trainlight-legendIt’s basically a Spark Core and a 60 LED-per-meter strip of WS2812Bs. A 1000µF cap filters the power coming in from a switching adapter and a resistor limits the level-shifted logic going to the LEDs. Eight barriers made from card stock keep the light zones from bleeding together. The sides of the square canvas panel indicate cardinal directions and are oriented to [Savage]’s southern-facing house.

The server gets prediction data every 30 seconds using the RESTbus JSON API. [Savage] added in a bit of time for walking down the stairs, putting shoes on, and walking to each stop. TrainLight receives these times over WiFi and lights the LEDs accordingly. If a section isn’t lit at all, the wait time for that line is greater than 10 minutes. Dark green means you have 5-10 minutes to get there, and pale green means 2-5 minutes. If the LEDs are yellow, you’d better put on your running shoes.

This is a fairly simple build with a focus on subtlety. Even before guests in his house understand what they’re looking at, [Savage]’s TrainLight makes for an interesting conversational piece of blinkenlights and doubles as illumination for the stairs. There’s a slightly sped-up demo after the break.

Want to make your own? [Savage] has a tutorial page and his code is up on the gits. Blinky lights are also good for telling you whether the trains are running at all.

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Retrotechtacular: Building BART

Sometimes it’s fun to take a step back from the normal electronics themes and feature a marvelous engineering project. This week’s Retrotechtacular looks at a pair of videos reporting on the progress of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. Anyone who’s visited San Francisco will be familiar with the BART system of trains that serve the region. Let’s take a look at what went into building the system almost half a century ago.

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