After our explorations of future environments – in terms of efficient and organized living arcologies or architectural approaches (growing skyscrapers) – our next feature focuses on possible sci-fi inspirations for novel transportation concepts. And while the most obvious mode that springs to mind, direct transport via Star Trek-style “beaming,” is bound to remain in the fictional realm for some time to come, we would like to explore some more immediately “feasible” solutions.

One of the most prevalent science fiction ideas is the obsolescence of automobiles – and their replacement by flying personal carriers, usually small jets or helicopters. As early as 1934, when Arthur C. Clarke (author of 2001: A Space Odyssey) published his short story Twilight, personal transport took to the air. Along those lines, popular animated TV series The Jetsons, Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner promoted on airborne travel – most notions of future cities have people flying around in aerial vehicles.

A popular view and prognosis – and one that has also inspired several designers: Right now, the most likely mode of individual air transport seems to be the personal helicopter – a concept already under development in the guise of Coroflot’s Scorpion. And although this particular model might not be ready for mass production yet, it certainly heralds a medium-term shift in transportation dynamics. Recently, a Dutch company even tried to crowd-finance the prototype of their ‘personal single helicopter’ PSH-M1.

But whereas personal helicopters might remain an elusive luxury, reserved for those with sufficient funds, science fiction has also inspired mass transit solutions for the general public. In his intro to the iconic/ironic animated TV series Futurama, Matt Groening shows people stuck in traffic jams; yet these unfortunate rush-hour victims are not zooming around in personal flyers, but find themselves gridlocked in clear tubes that crisscross the entire city. Along the lines of antiquated pneumatic tube mail networks, as popular in the 19th century, Groening pictures people getting sucked into a tube and then “spat” out at their destination.

Commuting by vacuum tube – as seen on Matt Groening's animated TV show Futurama. © Comedy Central - Futurama
Commuting by vacuum tube – as seen on Matt Groening’s animated TV show Futurama. © Comedy Central – Futurama

In some way, Groening’s tubes – or their historical precursors – might have inspired the current proposal for a mass transit system propelled by a similar ‘pneumatic’ concept (low air pressure or vacuum to facilitate increased travel speeds) based on train travel in rigid tunnel systems. This ET3 (Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies) transport system, designed by mechanical engineer Daryl Foster, would theoretically allow six-seater compartments to be “shot” at speeds of up to 6000 mph. While the ET3 is still in the early design stages, with trials suggesting more realistic travel speeds of up to 600 mph, its operating company claims that it has already sold several licenses to interested parties around the world. Incidentally, a similar, and slightly more plausible, system was recently proposed by Tesla-inventor and physicist Elon Musk who submitted a 50-page paper on the so-called Hyperloop – a bullet train that races through a network of tubes from Los Angeles to San Francisco at top speeds of 750 mph.

In light of these extreme mass-transit systems, China’s proposal for a “straddling bus” might not even raise an eye-brow. We don’t know if it was inspired by fantastic descriptions of London’s double-decker buses flying the city in China Miéville’s novel Un-Lun-Dun or the rapid traffic-beating rush of interspatial buses in Harry Potter, but the idea is surely out of a sci-fi book. The Chinese developer proposes a bus that rides above normal car traffic and “straddles” the street. Cars would safely pass underneath, as if tunneling the bus. The idea was proposed at a technology exhibition in 2010 but has unfortunately since not been able to make the jump to reality.



In comparison, our final sf example of futuristic transportation might seem almost antiquated, rooted as it is in Robert Heinlein’s 1940 short story The Roads Must Roll. Here, Heinlein describes a system of interconnected roads that circulate America at different speeds. Instead of individual movement on static roads, his vision proposes that people simply remain in place while the roads underneath them move at speeds of up to 120 mph – taking you from New York to Atlanta in the time it takes to enjoy a leisurely drink or two at the bar.

And while this concept might seem less outlandish by now, with moving walkways in airports and shopping centers, Hong Kong’s Central Mid-Levels Escalator remains in a league of its own. Opened in 1993 to connect two of the city’s districts, its ride might only 800 be meters long – including a 135-meter height difference – but it carries a daily load of 50.000 citizens on its record-breaking 20-minute journey. Just imagine the wasted time and energy if you had to take all those steps yourself. An extraordinary feat of urban design, this escalator was certainly inspired by science fiction – and offers a tantalizing piece of the future, to be experienced today.


Text: Lars Schmeink
Header image: Inventor Elon Musk (of Tesla fame) proposed a bullet train that would run within transportation tubes – the Hyperloop. © SpaceX