Peeking over the snowbanks:

8 infrastructure prayers for when the trains thaw


By Pat M. Tomaino

Now that the snow has infrastructure on our minds, it’s time to think about what we’ll build and spend. Congress is not exactly lunging for the checkbook. To some, that means we’re broke. But did America build the Hoover Dam or the Eisenhower highways just because it felt rich? It went more like this: we decided to issue some bonds, put people to work, and spend money on the infrastructure we needed for the twentieth century.

Reporting the show this week, we learned what’s needed in our new century. The architects and planners we called ticked off essentially the same set of challenges: move people and goods fast; make cities livable, now that cities are again en vogue; cut emissions and prepare for more climate craziness; and, deal with crumbling roads, rails, and bridges.

Here are eight big ideas aimed at those puzzles—from shovel-ready, to prototypes, to sci-fi. Which ones would get you to buy bonds?

1. Stackable cars

Illustration: MIT Technology Review

Why should anyone get rid of their car if it’s a twenty minute walk from the light rail to work? That “last mile” is the longest yard in transit infrastructure, and many supposed solutions leave the commuter stranded, out of downs with inches to the end zone.

Bike-sharing and Google buses are stabs at the “last mile” problem. Our guest Ryan Chin, for his part, is trying to make cars available when and where we want them by stacking them like shopping carts. The driver of the future might just fold up her vehicle when she’s done with it. Of course, in the perfect sharing economy to come, the car will be a rental and, after folding, it will stack into a convenient group with five other chariots, each ready to deliver Charlie from subway to cubicle.

Chin’s MIT City Science team put an “omnidirectional robot wheel” at the heart of the design. But the car itself doesn’t have a heart — at least not one that Henry Ford would recognize. To enable the fold-and-stack, each wheel has its own engine, and there are no moving parts under the hood.

2. The “straddling bus”

Illustration: Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment (via ArchDaily)

We’re aware of a trans-Pacific engineering gap: China’s busy building a new future, and America may have to make do with retrofits. Two years ago, however, Hong Kong mulled one solution that would straddle the divide between old and new. The 3D Express Coach would hug old city streets and shuttle mass transit passengers above the existing gridlock.

The design is both ambitious and a concession to crowded reality. A straddling bus has two answers for the urban crunch: there are no full rail lines to build, and the bus would not compete for space with existing motor lanes. Better yet: a straddling bus would claim the third dimension for mass transit, instead of more and more layers of auto traffic.

Projected at one-tenth the cost of a subway, straddling buses generated New York Times buzz and interest from several Chinese cities. Legs still crossed for now, though; apparently there’s been little progress on construction.

3. The Boswash Shareway

Illustration: Höweler + Yoon Architecture / DesignBoom

The Northeast has 53 million people and produces one-third of American GDP. As rich as it is, infrastructure-wise, the stretch from DC to Boston is rusty and overwhelmed. Designers rack their creative brains for solutions for so-called Boswash and sister megalopoles like Istanbul and São Paulo.

In a George Jetson 2030, the Northeast could be connected by a giant, multi-modal transport “bundle” called the Shareway. Roughly tracking I-95, the bundle would transform Boswash by bridging city and suburb and moving people “like data through the internet.”

It’s the vision of Eric Höweler and J. Meejin Yoon, Harvard architects who took Audi’s Urban Future prize in 2012 (and graciously spoke with ROS this week). Picture an eight-layer cake of rail decks, soaring for 450 miles over the Northeast, with people and cargo zooming on and off the layers. Like spawning fish, commuters in pods jump into the high-speed stream then break off and swim that last mile to the office in small groups.

These fish live differently too: they value access over ownership and sharing over property. A shareway is sociology as architecture for a critical American region. The designers admit that the corridor has been stunted by underinvestment and sclerotic politics, but Boswash is also burdened with a pesky artifact called the American Dream:

As infrastructure across the country has been failing, the housing developments it spawned have been foreclosed and the continent appears to have been structured in models of mobility we can no longer afford in financial, environmental, and social terms; the notions of progress that supported the continual sprawling American expansion no longer ring true. The postwar incarnation of the American Dream might be equally outdated. Its promise of the single-family home, with a front lawn and two-car garage, coupled with automobility, precipitated the postwar American suburb and its corresponding cultures (pool parties, Tupperware, and barbecues), architectural manifestations (ranchburgers, drive-throughs, and big-box stores), and neuroses (housewife blues, road rage, eating disorders).

4. Dredgin’ ports

Photo: Dredging Today

Are we ready to play in the muck? The Port of Boston, old as the first settlement, is now hub for 14 million metric tons of trade per year. Too bad it’s no longer deep enough. Neither are a half-dozen other American ports vying to host the next generation of huge container ships chugging through a newly-expanded Panama Canal next year. (Those “Post Panamax” boats need 50-feet-deep lanes and births. Boston’s port is 5 feet short.)

So, east coast ports have their shovels out. Using a combination of federal and local money, they are frantically scraping the continental shelf, racing to become the preferred new dock for Foxconn iPhones and LG refrigerators. Regular folks are supposed to be winners in this expensive race: goods could reach American population centers faster, and eastern cities could steal some logistics jobs from west coast ports getting the business now.

Checking in on the dredging race is an interesting window on regional investment—not to mention a cause for some Northeast jingoism. Here was the scorecard as of early 2014, according to Area Development:

The top four, in no particular order, might turn out to be Charleston, which can already handle Post Panamax ships at high tide; PortMiami, which is ‘all-in’ on expanding rapidly and is the first deepwater port north of the Panama Canal; the Port of New York/New Jersey, which has a dominant market position, population, and size; and the ports of Virginia, because of their port depth, mid-Atlantic location, and established terminal and intermodal infrastructures.

5. The LA-to-SF Hyperloop

Illustration: Tested.com

Elon Musk — famous for moving your money, your electric car, and your space freight with PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX respectively — now wants to move people from San Francisco to Los Angeles. At 800 miles per hour.

In 2013, the magnate’s team conceived of a tube train that could shoot pod cars through a vacuum to connect Hollywood with Silicon Valley the way old-timey office buildings zipped mail from floor to floor. The roof of this “Hyperloop” (elevated on pylons high above the Central Valley) may even capture enough solar power to run the whole works. The ‘futch,’ indeed.

Two years after the first white paper, Musk now has plans for a test track in Texas. He also has teams of grad students volunteering to try out their pod designs, if not yet raising their hands to ride in them. If it goes well, the beta stage would bring a little science fiction to the Texas plains, and at least one new passenger train to a big state that’s never built a foot of subway.

6. Solar roads

Photo: CNN

Last November, about 200 feet of new bike path came online in Holland. A cycletrack shorter than a football field may seem an infrastructure failure considering the Dutch love affair with cycling. It’s actually a long-shot path to a greener future: the road surface is made of toughened photovoltaic panels which might, at scale some day, help power communities.

It’s an on-the-ground idea that seems fantastical to many. Engineering types came out to knock the technology when an Idaho couple’s IndieGoGo campaign raised $2.2 million on the strength of a video titled “SOLAR FREAKIN’ ROADWAYS.” At least one grant-making arm of the U.S. government seems to share the excitement: before turning to the internet, the venture reportedly received $850,000 from the Dept. of Transportation.

Will the streets of the future be paved with silicon? Our DOT has acknowledged that the idea is a long shot. According to The Guardian, we get more optimism from the Dutch, who reckon that 20 percent of their existing roads can be converted to power houses, traffic lights, and even cars.

7. Solar farms in space

Illustration: John MacNeill/ IEEE Spectrum

While we’re talking solar, Japan is just as keen but taking the technology in a different direction: up, up, and away. A government team of 130 scientists is planning a solar farm that would float 36,000 km away in space, capture unfiltered sunshine, and beam the energy back to earth as microwaves.

There are obvious challenges. The team will have to convince folks that megawatt lasers shooting through the atmosphere don’t pose most of the imaginable risks. Construction sites in orbit are, to say the least, expensive to manage. Plus, for now, the Russians are the only people-movers in space. Another energy source for President Putin to manipulate?

Japan’s government and its partner Mitsubishi see potential, however. A space farm soaking rays five times stronger than those reaching terrestrial sunbathers could provide a gigawatt of power back home. Our only request: make it big enough to see from the front lawn, and call it the Life Star.

8. Power-to-gas plants

Photo: Boston Magazine

When they’re not on lease-and-destroy missions in rural Pennsylvania, fracking boosters are fond of saying that natural gas is our energy future—a bridge between oil and the Al Gore technologies we can’t seem to scale.

Researchers in Europe are trying to prove them right. Rather than coaxing hydrocarbons from Earth’s crust, however, these scientists would make natural gas from scratch. It’s a stab at the energy storage problem that plagues many green power sources. Renewables like wind and solar yield power intermittently. So, utility companies need better ways to store up surplus electricity generated when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing for other times when it’s dark and calm.

The challenge has scientists testing advanced batteries and enormous “fly-wheels.” Power-to-gas solutions would use green electricity to split water molecules, combine the products with carbon dioxide, and produce methane on call to power homes, plants, and cars. Think of those gas tanks as giant batteries. The transfer is only 60 percent efficient for now, but researchers are working to save energy and prevent any climate-killing methane leaks.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Radio Open Source’s story.