Governments in countries like China are turning to ever more extreme forms of public transport to wean us off our obsession with cars and and ease gridlocked cities.

China is a country of extremes. The world’s most populous nation; the world’s fastest-growing major economy, the world’s biggest exporter.  It has the world’s longest sea bridge, the world’s fastest train and is the world’s biggest market for cars. The list goes on and on. And its record breaking ways look like they are set to continue for a while yet.

Take that last point. In the mid 80s the country only produced a few thousand cars and hardly anyone actually owned one. Now, it is the world’s largest producer of cars and the world’s largest consumer. Last year, 18 million vehicles were sold, dwarfing the 12.7 million sold in the US. And this sudden explosion has meant a massive rise in one thing: traffic.

However, the ever expanding urban population needs to keep moving and so the government has turned to another extreme solution: the mega bus.

“China is generally looking very hard at new public transport systems” says John Austin, an independent public transport who has worked in Europe, Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.  The advantage of buses, he says, is that they can be quick – and cheap – to install, compared to other transport systems, like light railways.

Massive moves

Take the 3D Fast Bus from the Shenzhen Hashi Future Parking Equipment Company. This prototype behemoth could carry up to 1,000 passengers its designers believe. But its most innovative feature is not its size, but its design. It is designed to skip traffic problems by straddling the road, allowing it to cruise over gridlocked traffic or allowing traffic to flow underneath it when it is stopped.  Passengers ride in a cabin 5m above the ground, on wheels supported on streamlined stilts. Its designers say the electric bus could reduce traffic jams by up to 30%, and cost only 10% of the price of a subway to build.

The design was first announced 18 months ago but has seemingly stalled. But, for Austin, it is a sign that the Chinese government is willing to take drastic action to move its citizens around

“They’re clearly looking at options that will enable them to carry large loads of passengers” says John Austin.

Indeed, two cities – Beijing and Hangzhou – have just announced that they will take delivery of fleets of what could be the world’s largest bus - the catchily named Youngman JNP6250G.

The massive mover will carry up to 300 passengers at a time and will  have two concertinaed sections to allow it to turn corners like a regular bus is 25m (82ft) long - around 13m longer than a regular bus.  To ensure they cut through urban traffic they will use dedicated lanes in both cities, something that may allow drivers to test their top speed. One driver reportedly told the Chinese Youth Daily newspaper that he reached 51mph (82km/h) on a drive from Zhejiang Province to Shanghai. 

Although the JNP6250G has been described as the “largest bus in the world” others challenge the title.

Curitiba, capital of the Brazilian state of Parana, operates the Ligeirao Azul bus - a snaking monster that is 3m (10ft) longer than its Chinese rival but carries 50 fewer passengers. It is one of a handful of bus designs that cruise the streets of Curitiba, each with a different function. The biodiesel-fuelled Ligeirao Azul, for example, is a “Fast Transit” system that uses exclusive lanes and have priority at traffic signals in an attempt to cut down on journey times.  It is part of an exclusively bus-based transport system that has won worldwide acclaim. In fact, the bus scheme has been s successful that it is estimated that 80% of the city’s residents now use the service – something that has helped reduce congestion, pollution and commuter frustration. 

Other challengers to the megabus crown include a 24.7m (80ft) Trolleybus that operates in Zurich, Switzerland. As well as their giant size, all of these behemoths share another common feature – they are articulated, or bendy, single-decker buses.

“Articulated vehicles are being investigated quite intensively at the moment” says Austin. Many believe this “slinky” design is just about cramming in more passengers and allowing the vehicle to turn more effectively in narrow city streets. However, the single deck approach means that the bus also has less air resistance, saving fuel, and can load passengers more quickly.

Rural record-breaker

As a result, the bendy bus looks here to stay. In fact, it is one of a number of designs that is currently being by a European project to design the “bus of the future”.  

This bus is more conventional than both its Chinese and Brazilian counterparts – with just two sections, instead of three - but it gives us an idea of the direction bus designers are looking in. In particular, the project shows the appetite for smart buses – vehicles equipped with onboard computers, sensors and GPS to make sure the transport system is efficient as possible. Think onboard road maps that update in real time to show the location of connections, drivers who are warned about disruptions on their routes or onboard diagnostics to say when a part is about to wear out.    

However, there are concerns about the use of these large buses in some cities. They were brought in and then rapidly phased out in London, UK. The "cumbersome machines" which were too large for the city’s narrow streets and were thought to encourage fare-dodgers who could hop on the bus by the back doors out of sight of the driver. In addition, there was a perception that they were potentially dangerous to cyclists who may be riding alongside it.

One answer to this kind of problem is the dedicated bus lanes of Curitiba, that separate the megabuses from other road users. But one scheme that is taking this to an extreme is the UK’s Cambridgeshire Guided Busway, which connects the university town of Cambridge with surrounding villages. The 25-mile (40 km) route consists of bus lanes with priority access, of which 16 miles (25 km) is dedicated for guided buses. These specially adapted buses have trolley wheels on their outside which allows them to follow a concrete guide - the bus driver does not even need to hold the steering wheel. This speeds up travel and cuts down on congestion.

It is not the first system in the world to use guided buses – Adelaide in South Australia has one, for example. However, the rural Cambridgeshire scheme has one claim to fame; and it is one that would make China jealous – it is the longest operational guided busway in the world. But how long will it be until China catches up?

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