The other day in Chicago, a friend who lives in Columbus, Ohio, 360 miles away, texted me a last-minute dinner invitation. I walked to the Michigan Avenue Hyperloop station and, because I had just missed a downtown-Columbus-bound pod, waited a full 29 seconds for the next one. It was a little unnerving to spend 30 minutes in a seemingly stationary compartment while hurtling across three midwestern states — no passing landscape, no shudder or bounce, no engine hum or rumble of wheels, just total stillness at 600 miles per hour. Changing time zones gave me an unaccounted hour and I briefly considered filling it with a quick detour to Pittsburgh, another 360 miles round trip.
By the standards of current technology, that fictional vignette is absurd: Chicago to Pittsburgh is a seven-hour drive (not counting traffic or roadwork delays) and even flying takes half a day by the time you’ve gotten to O’Hare. Which raises a multibillion-dollar question: How reasonable does it look as prediction?
I’m not much of a futurist. I tend to think that realizing the fantasy of jet-speed surface transportation will depend more on bureaucracy and political will than on engineering wizardry. The technology already exists, in embryonic form: a 500-meter test track designed by rocket scientists in the desert outside Las Vegas. The company that built it, Virgin Hyperloop One, has put out the word in all 50 states that it’s looking for somewhere to build a longer track and research center. Spinning magnets cause a vehicle the size of a small bus to levitate, then send it zipping through a vacuum tube. The pods line up in a high-speed conga line, with one after another breaking away to a separate destination along the way, while the others keep shooting along. Every trip is direct. “You get there fast, you don’t have to wait, and you don’t stop along the way,” promises Josh Giegel, one of the company’s co-founders.
This all sounds dreamy, but if Hyperloop is to grow from gee-whiz infancy into a mature — even boring — form of intercity mass transit, it could launch a slow-motion transformation of the heartland. In the indeterminate future — 10 years? 50? — old-timers will compare a Hyperloop journey to traveling by car, except without weather, tailpipe emissions, distracted drivers, or suicidal deer. Or it’s like taking a train, but with no slowpoke locals, faulty signals, level crossings, or wheels grinding on rails. Then again, maybe it’s like flying, except without takeoff, landing, howling engines, delays, lost luggage, crashes, TSA indignities, slow crawls to the airport. Rather it’s a voyage through sealed and silent pipelines, raised off the ground, inserted into a highway median or above a train line, dipping into tunnels when topography gets in the way.
Of course, we still inhabit the disappointing present, when cars kill en masse, planes spew jet exhaust into the atmosphere, and trains plod along on ancient tracks. So Giegel has been hauling a prototype pod on a nationwide truck-and-plane tour, trying to drum up excitement and charm skeptics. When American techno-utopians conjure the next transportation revolution, they usually imagine teleporting from Dupont Circle to Rockefeller Center, or flying a personal drone from Culver City to Carmel. But Virgin Hyperloop thinks globally — it recently signed a deal with the Indian government to connect Mumbai to Pune. And in this country, the most fertile areas for next-gen transit may be the places that have hardly any transit at all — places like Central Ohio. “Our region is projected to grow by a million people in 25 years, and we can’t grow by a million more cars,” says Columbus City Council president Shannon Hardin. “We have to be open to many different ways of moving folks forward.”
Even as industrial cities like Cleveland and Dayton lose population, Columbus has been powered by the presence of universities, hospitals, Ohio’s state government, and a welcome mat for immigrants, who bring economic vitality. Adding more jobs and residents can work economic wonders, but in the age of the internal-combustion engine, that often means spreading people out across an ever-expanding landscape of single-family houses, clogged roads, and vast parking lots.
To boost the technology’s sprawl-fighting bona fides, the company appointed Jay Walder as CEO last year. A lifelong urbanite who ran the MTA and its counterparts in London and Hong Kong (as well as the company that operated Citibike), Walder believes that Hyperloop will shape settlement patterns in the 21st century the way railway lines did in the 19th, not as the automobile did in the 20th. Commuters will want to walk, bike, or make a short bus trip from a Hyperloop station rather than spend hours in obsolete cars.
The glamour lies in passengers, but some boosters hope Hyperloop will make the Columbus area an indispensable node for consumer goods. It already is: A ceaseless supply of microwave ovens, boots — even imported horses — passes through the cargo hub of Rickenbacker Airport, largely because it’s within a day’s truck drive of half the U.S. population. Dedicated Hyperloop cargo pods could cut the time it takes to move a package from the runway to a customer’s front door to a couple of hours.
David Berger, the mayor of Lima, Ohio (population 37,000), believes the new system will turn his struggling small city into a magnet. “The quality of life here is good,” he says, “and Hyperloop would make us attractive to people who work in downtown Chicago” — now a four-hour drive. “Living in our community could be practical for a much larger universe of folks.” That’s a good thing for Lima, but is it good for America? There’s something paradoxical about the notion of controlling sprawl by encouraging people to live hundreds of miles from their jobs.
Technology often allows us to do things we hadn’t even thought of, but sometimes it encourages to keep acting out old patterns, only faster. Instead of correcting past mistakes, we just commit them with more destructive efficiency. Surrounding a station with dense housing and local buses yields compact downtowns; attaching an immense parking structure fed by far-flung subdivisions produces the opposite. “I believe in mass transit: large pods moving large numbers of people,” Hardin says. “The worst would be single-occupancy or two- or three-person pods shooting all over the place because then we could be talking about sprawl at a whole other level.”
Aaron Gordon, a transportation writer at the website Jalopnik, contends that even a radical new technology inevitably has to confront tired old problems that have proven intractable for 150 years. All systems designed to move millions of people around the world are cumbersome and expensive, and sometimes they fail. In the case of Hyperloop, loading more and more pods into a confined channel will inevitably jam the system. Running a tube down the median of an interstate highway would minimize the need to acquire new rights of way, but there’s a trade-off: Pods will have to slow drastically as they approach curves engineered for 70-mile-an-hour speeds. The cost of constructing a whole new network is undoubtedly staggering, but nobody has ventured to calculate how staggering. Hyperloop cheerleaders insist that the ease of maintaining a frictionless system will keep ticket prices modest, but for now we can only take that on faith. Each of these problems may be theoretically soluble, but eliminating them all at once seems unlikely, Gordon says. “If I had to guess where this is going, a few very small-scale projects will get built as oddities, but not a full-fledged transportation system.”
William Murdock, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, disagrees, and his agency has just issued a feasibility study that hides its giddiness behind a scrim of sober bullet points. “When we look at traditional high-speed rail, for instance, we’re very aware of the challenges, the costs, and the environmental impact,” Murdock says. “Which is why Hyperloop excites us: The environmental footprint is smaller, the right of way is narrower, and the noise impact is lower.” Murdock tries hard to come off as a sober planner, but enthusiasm bubbles up from beneath his measured tone. “We’re being cautious,” he insists. “But the more we learn about the technology, the more confident we are.”
The American story of high-speed rail makes it hard to share his confidence. While China, Japan, and Europe have upgraded a 19th-century technology to bind their 21st-century cities, the U.S. has treated fast trains like some newfangled, overpriced toy peddled by elitists. Hyperloop is trying to charge through that wall of inertia on the strength of novelty, advanced engineering, and appeals to the imagination. The problem is that infrastructure is always too big to risk failure. You can’t tie the nation — or even two medium-sized midwestern cities — together with a gajillion-dollar network of vacuum tubes based on a techno-optomist’s fever dream. It took decades and two World Wars to go from the Wright brothers to routine air travel, longer still to cover the distance from the first automobiles to the Interstate Highway System. A technology of transportation can only work once it’s grown so old, so familiar, and so boringly reliable that building it out will seem long overdue. Unless cities like Columbus can start shearing through that paradox, we may never give Hyperloop a chance, and never know how much it might have changed the way we get around.