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Center for Urban Studies uses Hands-on Projects to Show Buffalo Students How They Can Improve their Communities

Design for metropolis of the future earns students recognition through Future City Competition

Future Cities model

"Tubester," Future Academy students' submission to the Future City Competition, is a tubular, plexiglass pod that hangs from an elevated track; riders pedal to move the "next-generation subway car" forward. Photo: Gavin Luter

By Charlotte Hsu

Published February 11, 2014

It’s sleek. It’s fast. It’s energy-efficient.

Behold the next-generation subway car: the Tubester, a tubular, plexiglass pod that hangs from an elevated steel track. The carriage seats 32, and the people inside pedal — as if on a bicycle — to move the whole contraption forward. Solar panels provide a backup energy supply so commuters with disabilities can also ride.

Think this setup sounds crazy?

It’s actually not far from reality, says a group of 16 Buffalo eighth-graders who dreamed up the Tubester for the annual Future City Competition, which asks children across the country to plan a futuristic metropolis. Single-person, pedal-driven Tubesters already exist in prototype-form in New Zealand, where they’re called the Shweeb, according to the students’ research.

The team, representing Futures Academy, a Buffalo public school, placed in the top 5 at regionals on Jan. 25.

The win is a point of pride not just for the kids, but also for UB, which facilitated the children’s participation through the Center for Urban Studies in the School of Architecture and Planning.

“We’ve been involved in the Future City Competition for almost 10 years, and this year was very special because we broke into that top 5 category, competing against some of the top schools in Western New York,” says Henry Louis Taylor Jr., the center’s director.

“The thing that we’re most proud of is that we just pick kids who have an interest in the project,” Taylor adds. “We don’t cherry pick, and to us that’s important because it shows the tremendous potential in all the kids we work with.”

Single-person, pedal-driven Tubesters, called Shweebs, already exist in prototype-form in New Zealand. Image: Shweeb NZ

Single-person, pedal-driven Tubesters, called Shweebs, already exist in prototype-form in New Zealand. Image: Shweeb NZ

The top 5 showing earned Futures Academy $500. The students also took home two additional cash prizes:

  • The $200 Most Innovative Transportation Solution Award, a particular honor given that this year’s contest was geared around designing solutions for moving large groups of people from place to place.
  • The $200 Time Warner Cable’s Connect A Million Minds Award, which went to team member Karion Carter for showing exceptional promise in science and mathematics.

Before designing the Tubester, the eighth-graders scrutinized transportation systems around the world. The team weighed such factors as pollution, safety and the health of commuters.

An essay submitted to judges captures the complexity of the students’ thinking, outlining the Tubester’s benefits, including:

  • Plexiglass walls, which are stronger than glass and give riders a great view of the city
  • Elevated rails, which lift riders out of ground traffic, preventing accidents
  • Arm and foot pedals, which enable commuters to get exercise while traveling
  • Solar panels, which reduce pollution and enable riders with disabilities to use the Tubester

“The infrastructure to build the Tubester does exist today in 2013, but it will be improved in the future when the Tubester is actually built,” the students wrote.

“It’s pretty cool,” says Gavin Luter, a UB PhD candidate in educational leadership and policy studies who mentored the young city planners. “Why can’t we design our cities that way?”

Besides Luter, students from the schools of Architecture and Planning and Engineering and Applied Sciences also assisted the Futures Academy team. Contributors included Matt Austin (MUP candidate), Caryn Blair (MUP candidate) and Reza Tashakori (MArch candidate). UB students Dominique Hickson and Darnell Dodard also served as mentors, working through the National Society of Black Engineers.

The partnership with Futures Academy is part of the Center for Urban Studies’ Community as Classroom initiative, which uses hands-on projects to show students how they can use their education and skills to improve their communities.