Using EDS suspension developed in Germany with Halbach array magnets, mini-maglev jitneys are a new technology that could transform congested corridors of Orlando. The train car itself is small – only 8’ wide x 30’ long – and holds approximately 12 sitting people and 8 or 9 standing people. But the ability of the train to zip along the centerline of crowded arteries like 17-92 and 50, and future tracks along secondary strips within the region, could give people a new way to travel.
Silent, with no moving parts, the electrodynamic maglev can ride along a guideway buried in the center of the road. Depressions for the jitney’s levitation magnets are shallow enough to drive over, making maglev tracks no more an obstacle than railroad crossings. Within cities like Portland, electric streetcars with clicking and buzzing pantographs are the norm, and drivers, pedestrians, bikers, and buses all coexist within a narrow public street. Here in Orlando, the pantograph, exposed to hurricanes, would be a liability, and the maglev instead presents a safer, more reliable transit system of the future.
How does it work? The train rests on tires at each stop, but as it accelerates past walking speed, powerful permanent magnets in the chassis lift it up off the guideway. Solid magnets in the guideway present an opposing force (really, the same pole is offered to the jitney’s undercarriage, pushing it forward and away). Electric power is present only immediately underneath the vehicle’s footprint, making the guideway a benign, inert force within the busy roadways in the city.
The car itself is a “smart” car, with no driver needed – a GPS-controlled computer stops and starts the car, with motion detectors delaying it briefly while passengers get on and off. As the car glides along, the photovoltaic roof powers the car’s air conditioners, lights, wi-fi system, and other devices. If the car breaks down, it simply comes to rest on its wheels, and it can be towed to safety within minutes.
But maglev technology, already in use for decades in France, Germany, Japan, and China, is already outstripping older technology in safety and reliability. These older systems went for speed, making for very large, heavy trains travelling in excess of 300 mph.
The mini-maglev, by contrast, will feature headways within minutes of each other – if you miss one, another will be along in 10 minutes or less in peak times. Bike racks in front and back allow you mobility once you reach your stop, and since they are designed for short trips, the cars are designed for standing as well as seated passengers. A full 360◦ glazed car will allow views in and out – making the trip pleasant, safe, and enjoyable.
Whispering along at conventional traffic speeds, mini-maglevs offer the busy commuter an option that is convenient, reliable, and beautiful. These jitneys are life-enhancing features that will set Orlando apart from other cities in terms of sense-of-place. Neither a 19th century train nor a 20th century bus, the mini-maglev borrows a transportation concept from the islands – the jitney – and recognizes our region’s multipolar, fine-grained circulation system already in place. Instead of fighting this system with a heavy steel-wheel rail system on 19th century rails like Sunrail, it simply enhances existing corridors.
Jitneys roam many Caribbean islands, gathering workers around the villages and transporting them into the resorts and the towns in packets of 10 or 15 passengers a vehicle. Frequent stops make them more like large-scale vanpools rather than small-scale buses, and they act as the connective tissue among the spread-out villages and settlements in which islanders dwell.
The spirit of the jitney is transformed by 21st century technology into a transit system serving the needs of a spread-out, dense region like Orlando. Let’s face it: while driving, we are highly tempted to chat on the telephone, text, or do many other things other than drive. Waiting at red lights or stopped in traffic jams, the pleasure that once was driving has now receded all too frequently in favor of frustration, anger, and fatigue. We sense the lost time behind the wheel, seeking to make up for some of it with mobile communication, but this has an external price to pay: the driver ahead misses the green light because he is texting, making your trip longer as well.
In the mini-maglev future, the distance and time are unchanged; what has changed is your freedom while you travel. Getting there will be fun again, and arriving in a mini-maglev jitney will be the new way to make an entrance.
Electronic Jitney farecards will make paying for the ride super-easy, and if you have any question about the route, timetable, or stops, fear not: your smart phone app will show you where you are going, where you want to get off closest to your stop, and map out how to get there from here. It will also helpfully show you what is coming up along your path: A library, your friend, a Starbucks…
And, for frequent riders, a feature long desired by mass transit commuters worldwide: on-call jitneys. Frequent riders will be able to electronically request a jitney at their desired stops, making these computer-controlled cars come to you. Getting off work late no longer means a lengthy nighttime wait for a taxi, or the next bus not due for another hour. You can request the car, and the farecard will give you back a message instructing you when and where to show up. With computer-controlled routing, mass transit is now more individually customizable than ever.
The mini-maglev jitney, combined with personal electronic systems, transforms mass transit from a Victorian burden on cities into a sexy, hip way to get where you need to go.
This article first appeared in The New Geography.