New Zealand project recognised as one of five ideas that can help change the world

You may recall our report earlier this year on New Zealand’s cycling monorail, called the Shweeb, which generated a lot of interest here on road.cc. Well now, its inventor’s dream of seeing it provide a solution to people trying to get around congested cities is a step closer to becoming reality after it won a $1 million prize from internet giant Google.

The award has been made through Google’s Project 10^100 initiative, which invited people to submit ideas “for changing the world by helping as many people as possible,” with a total of $10 million in prize money available spread across a number of categories.

According to Google, the response was overwhelming, with more than 150,000 ideas submitted, which it whittled down to 16, with those then put to a public vote to select the five winners, Shweeb scooping the award for driving innovation in public transport.

Shweeb’s CEO, Peter Cossey, told road.cc: “We are clearly delighted to have been selected by Google as the best entity on the planet to deliver innovation in public transportation. But with the elation comes a real sense of responsibility. We have a specific project now to deliver over a timeframe that looks like it will be 18 months. We have 4 short-listed sites across 3 continents and we will now mobilise the team and conduct further due diligence to select our chosen location.”

He continued: “After that will be 6-7 months of intensive research and development work followed by actual implementation. The final product will represent our first showcase transit system.”

Mr Cossens added: “I said in an interview this morning that this is a vindication of our vision by arguably one of the most visionary companies on the planet. That's pretty much how I see it.”

The Shweeb – its name is derived from the German verb ‘schweben’, which means ‘to float’ or ‘suspend’ – was dreamt up by inventor Geoffrey Barnett while he was living in Tokyo. Mr Barnett worked on the project, based around a recumbent bicycle, for four years before opening a test track in Rotorua, North Island, which draws in crowds eager to try the concept out for themselves – the record for riding the 600m track currently stands at 55 seconds.

On the Shweeb website, Mr Barnett explains: “When I lived in Tokyo I cycled through the city to work and on the weekends rode up the mountains around the city. Tokyo, with its frequent and punctual trains, capsule hotels, high population densities, and vending machines, opened my mind to new possibilities.”

Mr Barnett continues: “I came up with the idea of a bicycle monorail network while teaching a class in which the topic for discussion was transport solutions. The idea of riding above the traffic jams on multi-level rails seemed to me the only possible way that Tokyo’s millions of residents could move around the city quickly and safely. It had the added advantages of being environmentally friendly and offering an aerobic workout.”

He concludes: “To me this was a project that I could, if I put my mind to it, make happen.” Thanks to the funding from Google, he’s certainly a step closer to achieving that.

The other four projects that won awards from Google were the Khan Academy (for the idea, make educational content available online for free), FIRST (enhance science and engineering education), Public.Resource.Org (make government more transparent) and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (provide quality education to African students). You can find further details of all of those initiatives here.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.