Do We Need the Hyperloop?

Because I am an advanced mobility expert, one of the questions I often receive from other innovators I meet is about the Hyperloop concept, the futuristic “tube-travel” idea that Elon Musk floated to the world in 2012. Because I am dedicated to leveraging advanced technologies to massively improve how our cities work and improve the lives of people around the globe, it’s a question I have thought about.

Hyperloop is one of the most advanced “transit” technologies being developed on the planet today, but are we trying to solve the right problem?

There are many new players in the emerging smart mobility space these days. A lot come from the automotive industry, which has essentially been a “monoculture” for decades and has had little focus on multimodal systems. Others come from Silicon Valley or digital powerhouse companies, another group with limited mobility experience. The result is that there is a lot of excitement about bold new concepts like the Hyperloop, but not that many people may understand how it fits in the future mobility landscape.

If you have not read about the Hyperloop concept, it’s been heavily covered, and written about in this magazine recently (see: adandp.media/columns/hyperloop-hype-or-a-transportation-revolution).

The concept is wild: it involves a transport pod that is levitated by magnets and accelerated on a cushion of air by linear induction motors and air compressors in a partial-vacuum tube. The controlled environment is designed to minimize friction and air resistance, allowing the pod to quickly achieve and sustain speeds of 750 mph or more with relatively little energy.

The Hyperloop promises to speed future travelers from downtown Los Angeles to San Francisco, 380 miles away, in a remarkable 30 minutes! Developers of the technology imagine a future where people commonly go from LA to SF just for lunch!

Anyone trying to understand this future will do well to consider the transportation world as being a two-tier system. Our millions of automobiles, “captured” in our large cities or regions, are one tier. I say they are captured as roughly 99 percent of them rarely travel outside the metropolitan region in which they are located. The second tier are commercial aircraft, which are very large and can take a “neighborhood” across the country at 550 miles per hour. The Hyperloop is a proposed second-tier mode. But it looks to disrupt airliners.

I know something about the Hyperloop from supporting the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Design’s efforts to design future Hyperloop stations in LA. I was a judge for one stage of their project, and shared ideas with the highly imaginative students. The final work these students created was stunning!

While these designs were very attractive, I wondered about the future when the Hyperloop could travel from downtown LA to SF in only 30 minutes, but traveling from downtown LA to Anaheim in a car, just 60 miles away, takes roughly two hours because of the horrible traffic congestion. 

The efforts to acquire land to install Hyperloop tracks could take decades. Meanwhile, LA and many other cities can hardly move. Do we need to take a massive leap in bi-coastal travel, when the needle is barely moving to make supercities navigable? Shouldn’t we concentrate on getting folks from Encino to Anaheim in about an hour, before we nail the LA-SF commute in half that time?

I feel we humans seem to have an endless pursuit of being able to do everything, go everywhere, and do it all, just because we can. For decades we have bought cars way larger and more powerful than we need. We buy a tremendous amount of junk that really has so little meaning to us. The result of this behavior? Well climate change comes to mind.

Henry Ford said, “A problem clearly stated is half solved.” I wonder if we have clearly stated the larger problem of mobility on Earth.  And I wonder what the answers will turn out to be.


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Dan Sturges is mobility design consultant for team red and has been supporting “transformative” transportation projects for nearly 30 years. He trained as a car designer and worked as an entrepreneur to bring to market a new intermediate vehicle category. He supports a wide range of vehicle design and mobility planning efforts for both government and corporate entities.