History Suggests the Hyperloop Is an Uncertain Promise for Future Cities

Proponents of Hyperloop have repeatedly suggested that their transportation technology will create new “mega-regions,” essentially reshaping the scope of cities. Multiple startups are now striving to defy critics and connect different dots on maps. But in the process they face formidable barriers and uncertain sociological outcomes.

Most recently, Richard Branson made a sizable investment in Hyperloop One, causing it to be rebranded as Virgin Hyperloop One. His investment helps legitimize the radical technology. This latest round of capital could allow the world to experience a new and distinctive transportation system. But will it transform cities in the ways being promised?

The idea for Hyperloop was first popularized in 2013, when Elon Musk published a white paper (PDF). Musk outlined a new method for expedited travel, characterizing it as “the right solution for the specific case of high traffic city pairs that are less than about 1500 km or 900 miles apart.” This solution entails shooting capsules of people and freight through near-vacuum steel tubes at speeds exceeding 700 miles per hour.

Governments all over the world have now signed exploratory agreements with Hyperloop companies. And if you’ll pardon the pun, hyperbolic claims have been made.

Tim Houter, CEO and founder of Hardt Global Mobility, stated, “[Hyperloop] will make you able to travel over this whole continent, as you can now travel with a metro in a city.” His company’s website calls on people to imagine “a world without traffic jams, without schedules or rush, a world where you can live and work at any place you desire, a world where distance does not matter.”

Alan James, VP of worldwide business development at Hyperloop One, has suggested, “If you connect two cities with Hyperloop, you get, effectively, a sort of global city punching above its weight in a global economy.”

If built, it’s unclear how these systems would actually impact society. In spite of this ambiguity, public presentations about Hyperloop are consistently grandiose. A Hyperloop One blog post authored by strategic communications manager Leslie Horwitz suggested that the new technology could “stimulate growth and bring much-needed economic balance to the UK.”

Hyperloop pods would theoretically allow workers to commute over vast distances, connecting them with previously inaccessible jobs. “Through fast and seamless connections, a Hyperloop system would distribute the massive economic pull of London more equally and more productively,” states Horwitz’s blog post.

However, the cost of a ticket and the system’s reliability are looming question marks. Even occasional technical glitches would pose a significant impediment to the daily commuter. Additionally, “the massive economic pull of London” has not been distributed “more equally and more productively” within London itself, as was graphically demonstrated by the 2011 England riots and the Grenfell Tower fire.

Bridging Social and Economic Divides

It makes sense that Hyperloop companies are framing their product’s value in grandiose societal terms, given that the stakeholders are involved in governance and are more interested in public policy than linear electrical motors. However, some of the PR materials make even bolder claims than the UK post.

A recent blog post was titled “How Hyperloop Could Transform Mexico’s Megaregion.” The post alleged that “a high-speed intercity link could alter the economic calculus of central Mexico: employers in Guadalajara could access job seekers in León, and industry knowledge created in Mexico City could spill into firms across the four cities. Municipal governments, charged with governing a more connected region, could pursue coordinated infrastructure plans.”

These projections also seem unsubstantiated. The cost of a ticket has yet to be determined. Industry knowledge can already “spill into firms across the four cities” via the internet. And it’s hard to imagine a near-vacuum steel tube redeeming economies and governments that are presently embroiled in corruption and cartel violence.

Infrastructure investments don’t always yield the expected social dividends. China’s bullet trains were initially promoted as forward-thinking and a means of putting migrant workers within reach of jobs. For many, China’s high-speed rail now serves as a painful reminder of debt burden, the growing wealth gap, and the corrupt ministers and contractors involved. The high-speed trains are used almost exclusively by wealthy businessmen. The working poor simply can’t afford the higher ticket prices and instead travel on long-distance buses.

A high-speed train may save everyone the same amount of time, but different peoples’ time is valued differently. For a low-paid worker, the arithmetic doesn’t make sense. An extra dollar is better than an extra hour. A report from the World Bank notes “the overall financial performance of high-speed train services broadly depends on enough people being able to pay a premium to use them.”

Paradigm Shifts

Academics have long studied the effects of human geography, and have observed dramatic and unpredictable paradigm shifts. In the 1950s, city planners used hyperbole when they suggested that highways could act as a panacea, unclogging the arteries of unhealthy cities. Many of these federally-funded highway projects decimated African-American communities. Automobiles and highways led to suburbanization and urban decline. If Hyperloop technology does indeed transform the very meaning of a city, could there be negative consequences?

When asked to comment on these implications, Timothy McGettigan, a Fulbright Scholar and professor of sociology, replied, “Such Hyperloops give new meaning to the notion of white flight. Beginning with freeway bypasses, wealthy white folks have been engineering forms of transport that augment their privilege and minimize contact with pigmented ruffians. The privileged are always looking for ways to live the good life while minimizing contact with folks who make them feel guilty.”

He added, “Believe it or not, I am a big supporter of science and technology. It irks me, however, that we spend untold trillions on chasing stars, while hungry kids must fight over crumbs.”

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission proposed a Hyperloop that would connect Chicago to Columbus to Pittsburgh. When asked about this “Midwest Connect” proposal, Earl Smith, Rubin Distinguished Professor of American Ethnic Studies at Wake Forest University, observed that there are many unknowns.

“We don’t know about the development of ghettos because we don’t know what’s on each end. We don’t know the race/ethnicity of those leaving Chicago for Pittsburgh nor do we have a good hold on just what exists in Pittsburgh,” he wrote in an email to this reporter. “Who is the target audience leaving Chicago? What types of jobs are in Pittsburgh: Tech industry? Blue collar laborers? White collar business jobs? Finally, does this proposal bring any meaningful economic development to the city of Chicago? I doubt it.”

Proponents of Hyperloop have often noted that railways ushered in the global industrial revolution. They claim that Hyperloop now offers similar potential.

Risto Penttilä, CEO, Finland Chamber of Commerce, opined, “In the 19th century, railways created nations and trading areas in North America and Europe. In the 21st century, the new regional catalyst could be rapid transport. Instead of tweaking NAFTA, the new US administration should be building high-speed transport systems that would connect Canadian and US cities.”

In an introduction to the book, Canadian National Railways, Vol. 1: Sixty Years of Trial and Error, S.W. Fairweather characterized the railway as a tool through which nations were forged. “No wonder railways became an obsession. No wonder that any and all means were used to obtain capital to build them and that speculative enthusiasm passed the bounds of reason,” he wrote. “The errors arising from too enthusiastic speculation, though disastrous to investors in railway securities, did not greatly lessen the usefulness of railways to the country.” Although these words were written many decades ago, they could be considered a warning for Hyperloop investors in our modern times.

Large amounts of investment capital have already been poured into Hyperloop startups. Hyperloop One received a significant investment from DP World Group of Dubai. Their total funding is now $245 million. In 2016, a rival company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, also claimed to have secured over $100 million in investments, but that total included an approximation of volunteered man-hours.

Megaprojects are difficult to plan and predict. A 2014 paper from Oxford University’s Bent Flyvbjerg noted that nine out of ten megaprojects have cost overruns, due to a variety of factors such as long planning horizons, inadequate contingencies, optimism bias, and over-commitment to project concepts at an early stage.

It is apparent that transportation can significantly impact the way people live. However,  society is complex, consistently defying the expectations of central planners and corporate visionaries. Despite Hyperloop’s potential, it’s currently impossible to know how it will truly impact our cities, societies, and lives.

Image Credit: zhu difeng / Shutterstock.com

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David Pring-Mill
David Pring-Millhttp://www.pring-mill.com/
David Pring-Mill is a writer and filmmaker. His writing has appeared in Datanami, The National Interest, openDemocracy, and elsewhere.
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