Our New Opportunity to Make America’s Transportation System Great Again – Part 5

Part 5 :  The Totally Transformational Possibilities Offered by Hyperloop Technology

This is a further part in our article series on how we have a new opportunity for the United States to once again take a position of world leadership in transportation.

In part one, we looked back at three previous periods of American greatness, and in part two, we looked at how we allowed ourselves to be blindsided by the extraordinary developments in high-speed rail in Europe and more recently in China.

Part three became more positive again, introducing a new technology – Hyperloops – that promises to give us faster speeds than planes and less cost to develop and operate than high-speed rail.  The best of all worlds.  We then took a bit of a detour and looked at how private car ownership seems destined to become a thing of the past.

Which brings us now to the happy future of high-speed low-cost transportation.  That’s a total paradigm breaker, and we consider the implications in this article.

Breaking Out of the Constraining Faster/Further = More Cost Paradigm

The former unbreakable relationship between time, distance, and money, is now being shattered.

To date, it seems the faster we travel, the most it costs.  There is a natural law impacting on this – friction (in the form of wind resistance)  – something that increases at a more rapid rate than speed – sometimes at the square of the speed, sometimes at even higher powers, so going twice as fast might require four times as much energy.

There are additional cost issues too.  A road needs to be constructed to a higher standard for fast traffic than for slow traffic – for example, a smoother stronger surface, wider lanes, more gentle turns.  High speed train track similarly needs to be laid to a very much higher standard than regular freight track.

As for the distance component of travel, it is easy to understand that traveling somewhere twice as far will take about twice as long and cost about twice as much.

We’ve always had to make trade-offs between time, distance, and expense, so much so that it has become instinctive and unquestioned that of course traveling faster and/or further is more expensive than traveling shorter distances and more slowly.

The Hyperloop concept changes this.  Yes, longer distances will always take more time, and unavoidably some more cost, but Hyperloops promise to make all journeys appreciably quicker, and massively less expensive.  When we can travel three or four times further for the same time and dollar cost as we can currently with existing transport technologies, that opens up our horizons enormously.

The distance we can travel for a weekend break increases, and/or the time it takes us to get there diminishes.  A one day business trip no longer will require getting up so painfully early in the morning and returning home so late.  Discretionary travel of all types becomes easier to undertake, and location issues are no longer such an important factor in all our thinking.

Redefining and Resolving the ‘Last Mile’ Problems Too

In part three of our series, we noted that Hyperloop travel becomes practical for distances greater than about 100 miles.  For shorter distances, the ‘last mile problem’ makes travel by private car more convenient.  (By ‘last mile’ we mean the final relatively short distance between where the Hyperloop starts and finishes and the actual place we start and end our travels at – home or office or wherever.)

Both our ‘last mile’ and also ‘local commute’ problems are being transformed too, by new technologies.  As we explained a week ago, the end of the private car as we know it seems almost upon us.  But this is something to be welcomed, not feared.

For the Hyperloop, one easy last mile problem is to allow us to drive our cars onto the Hyperloop.  Rather like a ferry, we’d simply drive onto the Hyperloop at one end, probably then stay in our vehicle for journeys of up to an hour or so (ie 500 – 650 miles), and simply drive off again at the other end.  Our own car gets us to the Hyperloop terminal, our own car can be used for traveling around at our destination, and then connects us back to the Hyperloop terminal and back home at the other end.

That’s a good solution for today.  But soon enough, private cars will no longer be the norm.  At that point, it gets even easier.  You simply summon a self-driving “taxi” (when hire cars no longer have drivers, there’ll no longer be any real distinction between an Uber/Lyft service and a medallioned taxi service), have it take you to the Hyperloop terminal, and either continue using self-driving taxis at the destination or perhaps hire a vehicle.

One other notable feature of Hyperloop travel is that because they are expected to be small and only carry a few passengers, they will have frequent departures.  So, rather than having to fit your travel plans around maybe two or three different flights a day, each capable of carrying up to 200 passengers, you might instead have a choice of 20 or 30 Hyperloop departures, each carrying up to 20 passengers.  You’re never late for a departure, merely early for the next one.

Our Daily Commutes

A great start to everyone’s day – almost 30 minutes of frustrating commute, and the promise of 30 more minutes to get home again.

Never mind long distance travel.  Most of us spend the majority of our travel time on something much more mundane – daily commuting.  The average travel time to work is 25.4 minutes in the US.  Here’s a fascinating map that enables you to see the typical travel time in your area.

The average commute distance is approximately 15 miles, although there’s a large spread, with half of commuters traveling less than 10 miles and 16% traveling more than 26 miles.  Statistics aren’t as detailed about travel distances, because really, for us all, our commute is primarily defined by the travel time it takes, rather than the travel distance involved.

There’s little a Hyperloop can do to speed up a 15 mile journey, particularly when several miles at both ends would be ‘last mile’ type travel, between your home and Hyperloop terminal, and between the other end of the Hyperloop and your workplace.

But, that is approaching the issue from the wrong ‘end’ of the equation.  How about, instead, considering the implication of a 15 minute Hyperloop journey in the middle of your 25 – 30 minute total commute.  In 15 minutes on a Hyperloop, you could travel up to 150 miles.

So, think about the implications of that.  Instead of a 15 mile commute, you could now undertake a 150 mile commute, and do so still in a ‘normal’ commute time.

But wait, that’s not all.  Remembering the lower cost of Hyperloop travel, the extra commute distance not only takes no more travel time, but likely adds no more cost, either.

Draw a 150 mile radius around your workplace and look at all the places it includes.  Maybe some beautiful waterfront property, maybe up in the mountains somewhere, maybe a lovely little country town, and almost certainly, somewhere with lower property prices and better ‘quality of life’ than wherever you’re currently living.

If that’s not far enough away, it would only take a Hyperloop another five minutes to travel an extra 50 miles, or ten minutes to travel an extra 100 miles.

This could lead to an entire new model of residential development.  Think cluster settlements, ranging out hundreds of miles from central city cores.  One’s residential location can now be essentially uncoupled from where one works, and can be a lifestyle choice instead.  If you like the beach, you can find yourself some affordable beachfront within a couple of hundred of miles of where you work – not for an occasional weekend treat, but as your main residence.  If you prefer the mountains, head up into the mountains, and so on.

Note also the mention of the word ‘affordable’.  By removing the geographic pressures on housing, people are free to live where they want to and can afford, without sacrificing material convenience.

This point is worthy of illustration.  If you limit yourself to a radius of, say, 30 miles from the main city center, to allow for less than a one hour commute using traditional methods, that gives you a total area for the city and suburbs of 2800 sq miles (assuming that the city can spread out in all directions without water or mountains or other obstacles).  But if you use high-speed hyperloop commuting, maybe your radius extends to 100 miles and a total of 31,000 sq miles of choice, or even 200 miles and 125,000 sq miles of choice.  In other words, you have ten to fifty times more area to choose from.

Even more extraordinary, if we add another 10 minutes commute time, taking the radius out to 300 miles, that allows for 283,000 sq miles of region to settle in.  How big is 283,000 square miles?  Slightly larger than the entire state of Texas.

A total disconnect as between where we live and where we work (and, for many of us, less need to be physically present in an office all the time) will have profound effects on both parts of this equation.  Employers can now choose locations that make best sense to them rather than necessarily needing to locate in major population centers, and we similarly as employees will have a broader range of companies we can consider working for without needing to relocate.

If you live in central California, you could choose to work anywhere from north of San Francisco down to San Diego.  Live in Flagstaff, and work in Vegas, Phoenix or Albuquerque.  Live in upstate New York, work anywhere in much of New England, or, if you prefer, Philadelphia or possibly even Washington DC.  And so on.

High Speed Travel Comes to Secondary Routes

It is expected that Hyperloops will be much less expensive than high speed rail.  It may be possible to get 5 – 10 miles of Hyperloop service constructed for the same cost as a single mile of High Speed Rail service.

This means that Hyperloop systems can service secondary routes with fewer passengers on them.  As well as, for example, Las Vegas/Los Angeles, Reno/Sacramento would also become practical.  As well as Dallas/Houston, Amarillo/Lubbock.  And so on.

This will become even more practical, due to the ‘Southwest Effect’.  When travel becomes convenient and cheap, more people travel.  When people find it is only a quick hour and maybe $50, maybe less, to travel 500+ miles, travel becomes massively more appealing.

Who wouldn’t enjoy going away for weekend breaks to somewhere 500 – 1000 miles away, with a roundtrip cost under $100 and a travel time of 90 minutes or less each way?  For me in Seattle, San Francisco becomes an hour away and Los Angeles or Las Vegas 90 minutes.  (And, when I get there, I can stay affordably and pleasantly in Airbnb style accommodation, and of course use self-driving cars to transport me around the areas.)

Public Transport No Longer Needs Dense Population

The interior of a self-driving car “micro-bus” doesn’t even have to look like a traditional vehicle layout, as this concept from Mercedes-Benz illustrates.

Traditionally, public transport has only been feasible where there have been concentrations of people – a concentration at one end of the service routes where people live, and a matching concentration at the other end, being where people work.

If you have both concentrations, then traditional mass transportation options – rail, light rail, buses, and underground metro systems – can all work effectively.  If you can have, for example, frequent buses, each of which is full, you’re probably getting close to breaking even on the service, and of course the more frequent the buses, the more convenient they become and the more you encourage people to use them.

In our suburban paradises, with single family dwellings, and with our spread out business parks and equally low density workplaces, we have fewer opportunities to benefit from public transportation.

But when we switch from the concept of 50 passenger buses and 500 passenger metro trains, and instead consider the implications of 5 passenger smart self driving cars, running on low-cost electricity and getting 100+ mpge, we’ve totally changed the underlying cost equation and necessary break-even points.  A bus carrying 50 people might cost $500,000 or more, give 5 – 10 mpg, and require a bus-driver.  A car carrying 5 people might cost $50,000, give 50 – 100 mpge, and not require any driver at all.  Even at this simplistic level, it would seem that what formerly needed multiples of (say) 50 passengers to operate successfully could now operate with multiples of 5 or less.

So if the five passenger micro-bus only needs 3 or 4 passengers to be viable, that also means there can be a greater frequency of them, and it excitingly means that a smart matching service can put together people wanting rides along the same general route, and match them to their general destinations, too.  This means instead of having to first get to the bus stop, then wait for the bus, then endure stops every couple of minutes all the way to where the bus gets passably close to your destination (and possibly needing to change buses somewhere along the way), then walking the rest of the way from the bus stop to your office, you call for a micro-bus when you’re ready to go, it comes to your door, makes no more than another two or three pickup stops and no more than two or three drop off stops before you’re right at your place of work.

Chances are it will also be greatly less expensive than taking your own car, and probably less expensive than present public transport services too.

Who wouldn’t be delighted with that type of commuting service?  Whether it is used for the complete journey, or for a ‘last mile’ situation to get you to and from the Hyperloop terminals, it is clearly brilliantly convenient.

Travel Time is No Longer Wasted Time

In the current situation, getting between home and work is not particularly pleasant, and not at all productive.

If you’re driving, about the best you can hope for is to make some phone calls that you don’t need to make notes about, or to enjoy a radio station of your choice.  In public transport, you hope to find a seat and not have an oversized person sharing it with you.

But now, someone – or, more to the point – something – does the driving for you.  You’re assured a comfortable seat in a micro-bus or Uber/Lyft hire car,

Your travel time is no longer unpleasant and wasted.  Plus you’ll be given an accurate eta for when you’ll be collected and when you’ll be dropped at your destination, so your time can be scheduled, and the wide variety of internet connection options allows you to read, study, send and receive emails, and pretty much work or relax (watch video, listen to music, read books) any way you wish.

The traditional concept of clocking in and out at the office, and needing to be physically present, is becoming less and less essential for more and more people.  If you can get your employer to understand and accept that you are online and productively working for 30 minutes during your commute, each way, each day, then that removes a lot of the ‘pain’ of an extended commute.

Doesn’t this all sound wonderful?  Hurry up, please, the future!  And there are still more delights not yet considered – what about flying cars?

Well, we’re glad you asked that question.  We answer it in part six of this series, ‘Are Flying Cars the Future or a Folly?‘.  If you’re new to this series on the future of transportation, you can also move back to part four, ‘Is Private Car Ownership Becoming Obsolete‘ and earlier articles by clicking that link, too.

1 thought on “Our New Opportunity to Make America’s Transportation System Great Again – Part 5”

  1. Thanks David- interesting concepts to ponder. For myself, I am so happy to be mostly retired and when travelling, time is not a factor for me. Recently I decided to return from Europe in an uncommon way.
    Barcelona to Miami by cruise ship. Miami to Washington DC by Amtrak. After a 3 day stopover, Amtrak via Chicago to Seattle and Vancouver, BC. The train trip for me at least, could have been longer. Yet I couldn’t help but notice in any large US city, people walking at great speed trying to get somewhere ASAP. Clearly they were driven – so sad to see.

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