Op-Ed: The Future of Transportation Is Unremarkable

July 7, 2017

Being stuck in traffic provides ample time to dream up creative ideas for revolutionizing how we travel. Tech magnate Elon Musk famously thought up the Hyperloop while sitting in Los Angeles’ notorious roadway gridlock. He created The Boring Company to create a network of underground tunnels for the high-speed movement of vehicles in dense urban areas. Others evangelize about technologies such as personal rapid transit (PRT), monorails, and magnetic levitation trains (maglev) systems, with pods and trains gliding above or around congested roads to deliver passengers and packages.

Futuristic transportation modes would undoubtedly change the nature of transportation, but widespread implementation is not realistic. Too much attention on ultramodern technology in transportation distracts us from the mundane but crucial improvements that must be made to the existing system. It also leapfrogs over incredible advances in automated vehicles, a revolutionary technology that still needs time and attention before widespread operation on public roadways.

There are three major problems with futuristic transportation hype:

They are not brand-new ideas. The most hyped transportation innovations are actually slight twists on old ideas. The first subway in New York was actually an early Hyperloop: a vacuum-powered tube that shuttled passengers under busy Manhattan streets. The concept worked but its expensive price tag and technological hurdles meant investors found it more effective to build electrified railways that today carry 5.7 million rides per day. The first modern patents for maglev trains came in the early 1960s, but only four systems operate today in China, Japan, and South Korea. The best engineers in the world have been building tunnels under mountains and cities for hundreds of years. And the U.S. government funded a PRT demonstration project in West Virginia in the 1970s (which they still call the “pod cars of the future”), which is only open during the school year.

They are not cheaper than current alternatives. Examples of futuristic transportation promise to not only to be fast and convenient, but also be a fraction of the cost of alternatives. Hyperloop proposals claim a Los Angeles to San Francisco line cost of $6 billion, a fraction of the cost of the current $68 billion California high speed rail project. The Boring Company is largely driven by the belief that new approaches can dramatically undercut the cost of current tunneling technology, despite decades of the world’s top engineers working on the same issue. In each case, estimators vastly undercount the cost of acquiring land, engineering for safety standards, and other factors that traditional modes have long faced.

They will not benefit everyone. Futuristic transportation modes claim to target broad problems but, in reality, they would only address the transportation concerns of wealthy people. Even if there were a Hyperloop system between major U.S. cities, it would serve only relatively infrequent white-collar business and leisure travelers. It would not be practical for construction workers from San Francisco to commute daily to work on a project in Los Angeles. Even if Musk is able to build an underground network of car-carrying machines, only the top earners will be able to afford it. Most commuters will be stuck on the same congested roadways as before. Examine PRT proposals and you’ll find sleek, modern pods circulating between business districts and suburban parking lots that rarely include provisions for disabled access.

Of course transportation needs new ideas and revolutionary concepts to make the whole system work better for everyone. But most of the ideas that grab headlines distract us from the real problems plaguing the transportation network.

While people are gushing over Hyperloop, engineers are hard at work implementing modern air traffic control systems. While Elon Musk is digging holes in his parking lots, the railroad tunnels that bring 200,000 trips in and out of Manhattan every day are in danger of shutting for repair. While we debate the merits of PRT, Houston and Seattle have redesigned their bus networks to serve more people using the same amount of resources.

Let’s keep dreams alive, but direct our attention to improving the road, air, and rail systems that are already the foundation of our economy and society. They will still be so in the future.


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