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Alternative transit lies with Russians

I get bored with the cars versus bikes argument sometimes. Blah blah two wheels good, etc.

I get bored with the cars versus bikes argument sometimes.

Blah blah two wheels good, etc. Boring! We know! Now let's talk about the plans that span that range from "eccentric" to "quick, get the straitjacket!"

My favourite weird plan is for gyrobuses, a late 1940s product that was actually used in Europe and what was then the Belgian Congo for about a decade.

The basic idea is simple. Instead of batteries, overhead power lines or a diesel engine, you use a spinning drum or disk to power your bus.

This flywheel powers an electric motor to drive the bus. The flywheel is recharged periodically when the bus stops at a special charging pole.

Their short range (a flywheel can only hold so much power) and other issues killed the gyrobus in favour of diesel engines.

There have been a few attempts to revive the system, including one in 1980 after the second oil shock, but none came to anything.

However, there might be reason to look into them again. First, they're zero emission vehicles. Second, they don't require either expensive batteries or massive amounts of overhead wiring. Finally, NASA has put a lot of research into flywheels over the past few decades.

They use them to reposition satellites, and that could translate into more efficient engines for future gyrobuses.

From the relatively modest, to the insane, we move on to Russian ekranoplans.

An ekranoplan is not quite an aircraft, not quite a boat. They fly, but not more than about 15 metres off the ground. They're not supposed to.

Ekranoplan is (roughly) Russian for "ground effect," the phenomenon that makes flight more efficient when it's very, very close to the ground or sea.

That led to the Russian military building a series of massive prototypes between the 1960s and 1980s.

The big daddy was the KM, 550 tonnes, with thick, stubby wings, and about 100 metres long. It was dubbed the Caspian Sea Monster by confused western intelligence agencies.

The Russians also made versions bristling with guns and missiles (weapons was the only thing the Soviets did really well) and another variation was intended for troop transport.

The idea never died. Every few years Boeing or some other big aircraft maker will come up with a suggested design for an American military troop transport based on the ekranoplan idea. None of those have been built, but small firms use them for tourist flights in a few areas.

Finally, for those tired of two-wheeled or fourwheeled transport, there's the monowheel, which is just what it sounds like.

These vehicles, like the Dynasphere of the early 1930s, are single, large wheels with the rider sitting in the middle. Essentially, the rider sits inside a very large hub that presses close against the outer wheel.

You're probably seeing some of the problems already. How do you turn? (You lean. Works for motorcycles.) How do you see where you're going? (The Dynasphere featured a perforated outer wheel.) Do you ever get flipped upside down? (Sometimes, yeah.)

Maybe someday we could make ekranoplans and gyrobuses workable, but monowheels are basically really neat toys.

One thing all of them show is that we don't often think about the wild variety of ways there are to get around. We're looking for alternatives to gridlock, to fossil fuel use.

We need to sift through a hundred crazy ideas because a few of them will be brilliant. Just like both cars and bicycles were in their day.

Now I'm off to work on my idea of a giant-slingshot-and-parachute based transit system.

Matthew Claxton is a reporter for the Langley Advance.

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