It Costs Less Than Half The Price of An Urban Road, But Can Shweeb Succeed?

The requisite futuristic image of Shweeb

A kilometer of freshly constructed, two-lane urban road with a bike lane cost about $2.4 million to build.* A kilometer of track for the Shweeb, the human-powered monorail in the sky, costs about $1 million to build, plus it’s a zero emission transportation system that can’t experience traffic jams, except perhaps from earthbound gawkers.

This is the compelling though wacky argument that won the Auckland, New Zealand based Shweeb a $1.05 million grant from Google.org on Friday. The search giant’s philanthropic arm gave away $10 million in total to five world changing organizations, chosen from 150,000 competitors, as part of itsProject 10^100. Shweeb may have won Google’s heart, but can the company overcome its jokey name and outlandish concept to find success?

Shweeb Managing Director Peter Cossey told G.E.R. that the company plans to use the money for a tangible showcase system to demonstrate an A-B transit solution that can be used into the future.

Cossey said that Shweeb has had discussions about building on a site but declined to list them.He said the company’s goal was to move well over 1,000 people/hour in any of the major cities of the world.

The concept was born in one of the most crowded, and innovative, places on the planet.

Living in Tokyo, with its frequent and punctual trains, capsule hotels and vending machines, inspired Shweeb inventor Geoff Barnett to seek a transportation alternative above the throngs.

His solution was to build 8-inch rails, supported by towers that rise 19 feet in the sky. The pods are like sock tubes outfitted with recumbent bikes that move at between 5-25 km (or 3-16 miles) per hour, far faster than gridlocked traffic in major cities. Barnett has described it as “the most inexpensive infrastructure of any proposed urban transit.”

The Shweeb: Turning humans into tube socks

The details are laid out on the website, replete with computer generated images that, by law, must accompany any futuristic urban ideas. There are also FAQs to address such sensible questions as “what about going uphill.”

It would all seem like a giant prank, if Barnett had not built a 200 meter long demonstration track in rural Rotorua, New Zealand. It opened in November 2007.

Cossey says that the company, which is backed by five individual investors and Google, which now has a 20 percent ownership stake (corrected), is not looking for additional investment capital and plans to seek funds on a project-by-project basis.

A note on the name: it is derived from the German “schweben” meaning to float or “suspend.” So what if it rhymes with dweeb?

*This figure comes from the Florida Department of Transportation’s 2010 estimates and is derived from the generic cost per mile of $3,818,886.34 for such a road.

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