Sadly the greatest potential benefit from Hyperloop; truly rationalizing and modernizing our transportation system, often gets ignored.
The media obsession with larger than life celebrities; such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson and speed obscures the many benefits Hyperloop offers to both people and business. Stories about the system quickly become meaningless features about “Buck-Rogers technology” or whatever off-the-wall statement Musk made on Twitter yesterday.
That makes Hyperloop easy to ignore, which is sad because the technology offers the potential of a truly-modern transportation system that meets everybody’s needs. Such a system might be cheaper, faster, cleaner, and far more efficient than what we have now.
How Hyperloop can Fix Passenger Travel
The biggest shortcoming of our current transportation system from a passenger’s point of view is an obvious one that few people talk about. Present transport solutions cannot carry large numbers of people over long distances in a fast or efficient manner.
Automobiles are an excellent solution for local and some regional travel if highways are not congested. For longer trips, and movement of large numbers of people, the automobile and buses, are a terrible solution. Anybody who has ever sat in a traffic jam; which is almost everybody alive today, knows the automobile’s greatest flaw. It only functions effectively on an open road.
The flaw with airplanes is even greater, they can land and takeoff only at a limited number of places namely airports. Unless you live next door to the airport or the train to the plane there is no convenience in air travel.
Rail would be an excellent solution but America’s rail system is simply too old and too small to meet our present needs. The criminal failure to expand and modernize passenger rail in the United States has made this excellent technology useless for most Americans.
Hyperloop offers the potential of a modern transportation system that addresses these flaws. It potentially offers the speed of air travel combined with the efficiency of rail. Basically, the Hyperloop is a tube from which air is pumped out and pods are shot through at speeds of hundreds of miles an hour by harnessing magnetic levitation.
Hyperloop will never match the convenience of the automobile for local travel, but it does not have to. The dilemma of last-mile travel to the front door can be solved by such expedients, as cabs, rental cars, Uber, and parking lots at the Hyperloop station.
Hyperloop and Disasters
The other great shortcoming to our transportation system that Hyperloop can address is vulnerability to weather and disasters. Since the Hyperloop operates inside a tube it is protected from the weather.
Wind, rain, snow, and even catastrophes like hurricanes might not affect the system. It will keep operating under horrendous conditions when planes cannot fly, and roads are blocked. The Hyperloop pods might keep moving preventing situations like that in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; when poor people without cars drowned because they were unable to leave town.
Hyperloop might also keep freight and passengers moving and help present crises like the present one in Puerto Rico where people have no means of leaving their communities. Food, emergency supplies, and rescue workers would keep moving even if the face of disasters.
A Next Generation Power Grid
A greater benefit is that Hyperloop would run completely on electricity eliminating or reducing the need for fossil fuels and greenhouse gases. Electricity can be generated with less-polluting means such as nuclear reactors, windmills, and solar panels. This might help prevent many of the disasters in the first place by limiting or reducing the possibility of global warming.
A related benefit would be that Hyperloop can serve as a next-generation power grid which might not be as vulnerable to weather. The power lines and fiber optic cables would be inside the Hyperloop tube and less vulnerable to wind and precipitation. Even greater protection from a disaster can be achieved by burying the Hyperloop like a pipeline.
That might prevent disasters such as the one in Puerto Rico where 90% of the population lost electricity and vast numbers of people were without communications because cell phone service and landlines got knocked out.
Hyperloop can also expand the capacity of the grid because solar panels can be placed on the tubes to generate electricity. The tubes themselves can be used to store electricity with the addition of batteries. Obviously, lithium batteries would present a fire hazard but they can be safely placed outside the tube.
Democratizing Transportation and Alleviating the Housing Crisis
The greatest benefit of Hyperloop would be to truly democratize transportation. Our present-day transportation system is heavily skewed towards the affluent.
Wealthy people can live almost anywhere in the country and travel freely via private jets or airlines. Meanwhile many poor people; and a growing percentage of the middle class, may have trouble getting across town or commuting to work.
This contributes to the housing crisis because there is plenty of surplus housing in some areas in the country but it is located far from jobs. There is a vast amount of surplus housing in Upstate New York, Northern Pennsylvania, and Western Massachusetts, but a serious housing shortage a few hundred miles away in New York City which has plenty of jobs.
A major reason for this is that there are no practical or economical means of quickly traveling between Schenectady or Springfield and New York City. Hyperloop; which can supposedly move at speeds of several hundred miles an hour at a cost rivaling a bus ticket, would provide that solution by reducing the commute time between cities to a manageable 30 minutes to an hour.
Hyperloop would also be able to travel fairly close to homes, and even right into cities, unlike airplanes. That means a large portion of the population would be able to walk, ride a bicycle, take the bus, catch a ride from a neighborhood, or drive a beat-up old trap to reach it.
How Hyperloop can Democratize Transportation
More importantly, almost everybody would be able to ride the Hyperloop and nobody would have to invest a few hundred dollars a month on a vehicle to use it. This might give the working and middle classes the same kind of mobility the elite now enjoys at a fraction of the cost.
If an unemployed carpenter that lives in Amarillo heard about a few days of work in Los Angeles he would be able to take advantage of it with minimal investment. The only costs would be the Hyperloop tickets, meals, and a motel room expenses which most working guys can manage.
Today, that carpenter would probably have to drive; which would involve two or three days of travel each way, and several hundred dollars’ worth of gasoline. If he lacked a reliable vehicle the poor guy might be worried about a breakdown on the Interstate and getting stranded with only his thumb for transportation.
This brings up the greatest problem with the Libertarian fantasy of “automobility.” It only works if you can afford a good vehicle, and have the extra cash to repair, and maintain it. A large portion of the population is only one flat tire or breakdown away from complete lack of transportation and job loss because they can only afford a beater.
Many poorer Americans are unable to travel to take advantage of opportunities like jobs because they lack a good car. Or if they have one the opportunity is out of practical driving distance – what good is a high-paying job at the Amazon fulfillment center if it is a four-hour drive from your house?
This situation is about to get far worse because many local job opportunities are disappearing thanks to the retail apocalypse. A recent survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that e-commerce jobs are far-higher paying and almost as plentiful as those in brick and mortar retail but not widely dispersed. There will be jobs in the future, but they will be fewer in places.
That indicates commute lengths and times will increase on a highway system that is already overcrowded and poorly maintained. A transportation infrastructure to meet those demands is needed and it might be here in the form of Hyperloop.
Hopefully, our leaders will take advantage of it. If we leave building new transportation to celebrity egomaniacs like Richard Branson and Elon Musk our nation faces disaster.