Jay Walder, the roving transportation executive who has devoted his career to make creaky old technologies — bikes and trains, mostly — slightly more efficient, is leaping into a futuristic world first envisioned by Elon Musk. The former CEO of Citibike parent company Motivate and of the MTA is taking over Virgin Hyperloop One, the L.A.-based company that plans to whisk passengers and freight in bus-sized pods through tubes at jetliner speeds.
The appointment of Walder, who practiced in the slogging ways of bureaucracies and the challenges of patching up 100-year-old engineering, signals that Hyperloop technology is moving out of the hands of techno-futurists and into the real world of government contracts and rights-of-way. “At Motivate we proved that bicycles could make a real difference in cities,” Walder says. “Now we’re moving to the other end of the spectrum: This is the first new technology of transportation in 100 years.” The company’s first real-world goal will be a route connecting the Indian cities of Mumbai and Pune, reducing a four-hour car journey to a 25-minute jaunt. Walder says he expects to begin construction of a six-mile test segment in India sometime next year.
Instead of rolling along tracks or a paved surface, a Hyperloop One pod containing several dozen passengers shoots frictionlessly through a vacuum tube, propelled by magnetic levitation. “The pods, vacuum tubes, and maglev, are independent technologies that already exist. When you put them together with advanced control systems, you’re opening up a wholly new mode of transportation that gives you speed, is environmentally friendly, and allows you to imagine the shaping of urban areas and regions,” Walder says. According to a company spokesperson, a completed Hyperloop link between Mumbai-Pune would eliminate 150,000 tons of carbon that cars now pump into the air each year.
Urbanists have often mocked Musk’s initial Hyperloop concept and his relentless cheerleading, dismissing the invention as a subway by another name, or a glorified car tunnel. But Musk has no direct involvement with Virgin Hyperloop One, and Walder insists that the technology will have profound effects on the way cities develop. The ability to commute in minutes between two dense downtowns hundreds of miles apart, or to have a late morning meeting in Philadelphia, say, and lunch in Brooklyn, will link urban regions more efficiently. That could, in theory, take transit-oriented development to a new level, undercutting reliance on cars and trucks.
“Sometimes we feel trapped in a paradigm we created 100 years ago,” Walder says. “Let’s stop talking about just mitigating the impact of the automobile and instead create something really new.”