Sunday, December 14, 2008

Kinshasa, Ville d'Avenir

Here's an interesting post from a French volunteer working in Kinshasa. Seems for months he'd been passing a derelict, strange-looking gallows on Kasavubu Boulevard in Bandal. He thought maybe it once served as a street post for hanging ads or signal lights. He didn't worry about it too much, though, until he happened on an old Flemish guidebook for Leopoldville from 1958. In it, he found a picture of a bus--apparently hanging by three wires from the post.

It seems the contraption used to be a charging device for a revolutionary type of bus that ran on electricity. These were "gyrobuses," capable of running 2 kilometers between charges. With each charge taking only 30 seconds to 2 minutes, the buses could carry up to 90 people at speeds of 80 kph.

Apparently a dozen or so of the buses were in use in Kinshasa in the 1950s, running along four lines. The company only equipped three cities in the world with the devices before going out of business: in its hometown in Switzerland, in Ganz, and in Kinshasa.

The experiment was abandoned after four or five years. The humidity wrecked havoc on the engines, and drivers kept taking detours and getting stuck off-roads without a charge.

Still, it's not hard to imagine that someday, as we move away from carbon-emitting cars, clusters of plug-in devices will flower along our roads and highways, as strange and unlikely looking as these -- rusted mementos of an age when Kinshasa still seemed like it might be a city of the future.

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