From maglev trains to electric ferries, the best high-tech transit around the world

On June 15, SpaceX announced that it plans to build a 1-mile test track next to its headquarters in Southern California not for the purpose of space exploration, but to build a prototype of the world’s most ambitious public transit concept. The Hyperloop – the dream project of founder Elon Musk – will use linear induction motors and air compressors to push pressurized capsules through tubes at 750 miles per hour. Such a system could shorten travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to 30 minutes. In theory, anyway.

If the amount of excitement the Hyperloop has generated is any indication, Americans are clamoring for next-gen public transportation. The prospect of shooting from LA to San Francisco in the time it takes to watch a TV episode, without a car, is undeniably tantalizing for anyone who has ever found themselves stuck in a classic SoCal traffic jam.

But you don’t have to look to unproven, sci-fi-like technology like the Hyperloop to find badass mass transit you would be excited to buy a ticket for. You just need to look abroad (or in some cases, a little more closely here at home). Here are some of our favorite technologies we would love to see more of stateside.

Yarra Trams

Yarra Tram

Image courtesy of Alpha/Flickr.

Although the streetcars crisscrossing Melbourne in Australia have to compete with cars on the roads, they are still able to run efficiently, thanks to sensors installed throughout the network. With all the data collected and using software from IBM, Yarra Trams deliver real-time information to passengers via a mobile app, recommending alternative routes if there are any issues. Because operators know where all trams are and what’s going on exactly, they can quickly adjust schedules or deploy more cars into service. Even though the system is one of the world’s oldest, modern technology and big data can help improve service for both riders and operators (hear that, New York?).

Copenhagen City Bikes


Image courtesy of Comrade Foot/Flickr

Bike ridership continues to rise, particularly in urban areas. New York City’s Department of Transportation noted ridership doubled between 2007 and 2011, and predicts it will triple by 2017. Biking makes sense: It’s economical, healthy, and, in a place like New York, practical. The increase is due in part to new bike lanes and a recently installed bike-sharing program.

But bike sharing isn’t a new concept. In Copenhagen, the City Bikes (Bycyklen) program has been running since 1995. The Danish capital recently re-launched the system with new high-tech bikes that come with GPS navigation and an electric motor to speed you along when those legs get tired. Unfortunately, the bikes cost a bit more to use than before, when they required only a small coin deposit.

Private Shuttles

Bridj Van

Image courtesy of Bridj.

Not all great mass transit ideas are international – or operated by cities. In San Francisco, riding alongside city buses are new, privately operated buses that shuttle commuters between the residential areas of the Marina District and Cow Hollow to the tech and financial offices of downtown – with minimal stops. On Leap, a ride costs less than the city’s public bus, yet each Leap bus is outfitted with Wi-Fi, USB outlets, food for purchase (Blue Bottle iced coffee, anyone?), and a high-design interior. The buses run on natural gas, have fewer seats, and work with a companion smartphone app that lets you pay your fare and tells you exactly when the bus will show up. A competitor, Chariot, uses smaller vans that cost more to ride, but it offers more routes and you sit with fewer passengers. Other cities have similar operations, like Bridj in Boston.

For the tech-savvy, Leap is an ideal system. It’s cheaper than a cab or car service, but plusher and more connected than a city bus. Unfortunately, there’s only one route for now and it only operates during commuting hours, so it won’t put the city buses out of business anytime soon.

However, these private shuttles are facing criticism, accused of serving only a select few (although Leap says it’s open to all, it requires access to a smartphone and mobile payment to ride), and because they aren’t under city jurisdiction, they have been deemed unsafe. Like Uber, Airbnb, and other startups, perhaps over time, residents and city officials will accept them as a viable alternative that can operate alongside established services. If anything, they could encourage mass transit agencies to up their game.

Seoul Metropolitan Subway

Seoul Metropolitan Subway

Image courtesy of Tom Page/Flickr.

In a short time, South Korea has emerged as one of the world’s most high-tech regions, and the Seoul Metropolitan Subway system in the country’s capital is a poster child. For about $1 a ride, you get access to clean trains and facilities; announcements and signage in English; Wi-Fi, cellular, and mobile TV service while underground; digital kiosks in stations; contactless payment (the first in the world); and heated seats. As the home of Samsung and LG, it’s fitting that LCD displays are used in all stations to show real-time information, but why bother since you can get all that info on your smartphone?

Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway (MTR)

Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway

Image courtesy of Sorbis/Shutterstock.

Like Seoul, Hong Kong’s subway system was one of the first to implement a contactless payment system, in 1997, which many mass transit agencies now use. But riders could also use select Octopus cards at eateries and shops, such as 7-Eleven and McDonald’s, or pop a special SIM in their NFC-capable smartphones in place of the card. During wait times, riders have access to free Wi-Fi at all stations, and some stations even have computer terminals, called iCentre, with access to the Internet. Oh, and it’s also reliable.

Dedicated Rail Links

Maglev Train Pudong

Image courtesy of Tim Adams/Flickr.

Many cities connect their public transportation systems with their airports, but what we want to see more of is a dedicated rail link like the new Union Pearson Express in Toronto. Getting from downtown Toronto to the city’s Pearson International Airport used to be a pain, but UP Express takes passengers from Union Station downtown directly to the airport’s Terminal 1. That means riding in trains outfitted with proper baggage racks, and not having to deal with other commuters and long train rides that stop at every station. During the 25-minute journey, expect free Wi-Fi for checking into flights, while displays from Flyte Systems show flight info in real-time.

If it’s the future you want to ride, nothing beats the Maglev train between Shanghai’s Pudong Airport and the city. It’s one of the world’s fastest passenger trains, and while the route is short, there’s currently nothing else like it.

Ampere All-Electric Ferry

Ampere Ferry Norway

Image courtesy of Siemens.

The Ampere is a ferry in Norway that can carry 360 passengers along with 120 cars, but that isn’t its best feature. The Ampere is the world’s first all-electric ferry (hence its name) that’s powered by two 450-kilowatt battery-powered motors, developed by Siemens. What’s even more impressive is that emissions-free vessel’s batteries can be recharged in 10 minutes, allowing the Ampere to keep moving back-and-forth on the 5-mile journey.