The Hyperloop is a Distraction, Not a Solution

So you’ve probably heard that Elon Musk’s futuristic Hyperloop technology has taken its first baby steps towards becoming a reality. Roughly a week ago Hyperloop One conducted a successful test of a preliminary prototype somewhere out in the Nevada desert. Congratulations to the team! This is definitely a great moment in the development of a new transportation technology that could fundamentally change the way we move people and goods. But the hype surrounding this development is vastly overblown, since this “solution” doesn’t really solve the bigger issue that America faces today.

Hyperloop’s hype within the tech community highlights the persistent disconnect between Silicon Valley and the rest of America. Often times the community is so focused on disruption for the sake of disruption that teams blindly sidestep much bigger problems along the way.

If you were to ask urban planners, transit wonks, politicians, community activists, or pretty much anyone in the urban development realm about our country’s most pressing urban problems, the lack of new technologies doesn’t make that list. Instead, they’ll lament about how our current political system isn’t conducive to adopting new technologies when they come to market. The Hyperloop is a wonderful solution to a problem we never really had in the first place. If high-speed rail already crisscrossed America the “need” for a step forward in tech would be more legitimate… but it doesn’t.

Instead we’ve spent decades trying to build these systems and consistently come up short. Where’s the evidence that a Hyperloop proposal won’t get stuck in the same regulatory hellhole? The technological achievement of a functional Hyperloop means very little if we’re still living in a political system that renders us unable to utilize it. High speed rail and the Hyperloop are much more similar than many would like to believe, therefore it helps to look at America’s history with implementing (read: stalling) high-speed rail and how our infrastructure approval process needs more attention than our infrastructure technologies.

The most advanced long-distance ground transportation we have in America is the Boston-Washington corridor’s Acela Express. Amtrak often brags about Acela’s status as America’s first high-speed rail system, taking every chance it gets to advertise the train’s top speed of 150mph. What Amtrak tries to hide is that the train can only reach this speed during a stretch of 34 miles between Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The average speed of these trains between DC and NYC is barely 82mph (and that average drops to a paltry 67mph when looking at the full length between DC and Boston.) Back when Obama first came into office in 2009, one of his transportation initiatives was rolling out high-speed rail across the nation. We all know that didn’t pan out too well. In fact every single regional proposal failed except the California High Speed Rail project. (However projects in Texas and Florida have been revived as private ventures, yet another indicator of the ineptitude of the public sector.)

If we can’t succeed in building high-speed rail, why are we so adamant about jumping straight to the Hyperloop? Over 15 countries have high-speed rail systems that make Acela look downright shameful. For example Italy’s main high-speed line connecting Florence with Rome had a top speed of 160mph with an average speed of 120mph… in 1977. (It’s since been upgraded to a top speed of 190mph.) Our transportation problems here in America aren’t technological constraints; the tech has been out there for nearly 40 years, the problem is that our political and regulatory systems keep us from taking advantage of them.

While the new tech in Hyperloop does indeed move people faster in a way that excites our futuristic fancies, it still shares one crucial feature that has stalled high speed rail projects across the nation for decades. In all of the talk of innovation and disruption, engineers sidestepped the big problem that makes major projects like this such a regulatory headache: Hyperloop requires a path that is pretty much straight. Making a turn at speeds of 300+mph would require an extremely wide turn radius to prevent Hyperloop skeptics’ “vomit comet” scenarios of inflicting serious g-forces on passengers. But how do you expect to cut a straight line through the San Francisco Bay Area that doesn’t both displace residents and cost TONS of money for land rights? Less populated areas like California’s Central Valley have also caused a slew of problems for CA’s high speed rail project because its path has to be straight as an arrow. (Hint: there are these lovely people called farmers that are unhappy with the way straight alignments split their land, making their work tougher.)

Amidst all of the recent brouhaha over Hyperloop’s recent successful testing, very few experts take the moment to acknowledge the true hurdle ahead. While many engineers have bragged that they expect a fully operational Hyperloop system to move passengers by 2020, none of these tech geniuses have come forward with practical plans for land acquisition, potential alignments, or any steps toward submitting the all-important Environmental Impact Statement. The EIS is often what holds up major infrastructure projects and forces costs to explode far beyond projections as the process allows NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) activists to put the project on hold until their desires are satisfied.

It sounds like an awfully hard task to figure out how to move things through a tube at breakneck speeds without having some kind of “splat”-filled ending. That’s why the Hyperloop gets a lot of well-deserved attention. But let’s not kid ourselves that the work is done once we circle our answers on our real-world engineering problem set. Our recent focus on STEM fields is helping us take an educated step into a technologically filled future, but it’s beginning to blind us to the many other issues we face on a day-to-day basis.

What we need are thoughtful minds focusing on how to accurately assess the environmental impacts of these mega-structure projects through a regulatory process that doesn’t take close to a decade to complete. We need better methods of communication between agencies and communities to make collaboration on infrastructure projects more streamlined and coherent. Most importantly, we need to adopt a mindset that values all disciplines and viewpoints equally, not just those coming from people with an engineering degree. If we don’t, America will continue to fall behind and the Hyperloop might opt to make its highly-anticipated debut outside of America in a country where it can actually get regulatory approval to be built.

(I’ve heard Slovakia is great this time of year.)

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