The Real Promise of Elon’s Hyperloop

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The pitch for the hyperloop, the Elon Musk-imagined rail gun that’s supposed to fire cabins full of people from one locale to another at up to 760 mph, usually centers on rapid transit between major cities. Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes. New York to Washington in 29. Dallas to Fort Worth in just six. The developers’ calculations often rest on the assumption that non-city living is on its way out. It’s a continuation of Silicon Valley’s obsession with urban-centric business models (see scooters, delivery startups, and the fetishization of the smart city).

But here’s the thing: The suburbs are hot right now. Since 2012, U.S. cities’ growth rates have fallen by half while those of outer suburban counties have quadrupled, according to census data compiled by the Brookings Institution. As they have children, even millennials are migrating away from urban cores, and not just because they’ve been priced out. In multiple studies, people under 40 have told researchers they prefer lower-density neighborhoods and fenced-in yards.

There’s a cost to living away from cities, though. The most economically productive regions of the country often subject their residents to the longest commutes. More than 100,000 people in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, are considered “supercommuters,” meaning they travel more than 90 minutes each way to work. A housing shortage, coupled with America’s aging highways and commuter rail lines, can make the idea of being shot out of a train cannon sound downright appealing.

The Real Promise of Elon’s Hyperloop

As Musk prepares to show off some equipment on Tuesday in a test tunnel his Boring Co. has carved beneath Los Angeles County, much ink has been spilled about his plan to ease L.A. traffic. But if the project is truly successful, its greatest effect will be felt much farther away. From the streetcar to the highway, advances in transit technology have tended to drive people farther from one another, and into increasingly sprawling settlements. If they prove to be more than extremely expensive vanity projects, hyperloops, like self-driving cars, could feed the latest growth of suburban migration. Boring didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

Bain & Co. analysts, dazzled by the prospect of new transit technologies, go so far as to say it’s time to think about what a “post-urban” U.S. economy might look like. New York architect Louise Braverman did just that with an art exhibit called the “Hyperloop Suburb,” which was on display in Venice, Italy, this year. “In architecture-land, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, you’re living in the suburbs? That’s horrible!’ ” Braverman says. But clients kept coming to her with the burbs in mind, so she mocked up an environmentalist vision of dense communities rich with parkland and cultural centers, with driverless cars spackling in the gaps. It looks a bit like The Jetsons set on a farm.

Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars raised by a handful of startups, the concept of the hyperloop still sounds as fanciful as it did when Musk first pitched it more than a half-decade ago. Yet there are sparks of real progress. In addition to its California test tunnel, Boring is midway through a federal environmental assessment for a plan to build a transit system between Chicago’s downtown and O’Hare International Airport.

Shorter distances don’t lend themselves to the full 760-mph treatment. The Loop system, as Boring’s Chicago project is called, will top out at 150 mph. Musk has said, however, that it could eventually fit into a larger transit network. Likewise, Virgin Hyperloop One’s roughly 100-mile planned project from Mumbai to the Indian city of Pune has no intermediate stops planned, but they could easily be added, the company says. 

And suburbanization is already here. The authors of the book Infinite Suburbia cite predictions that by 2030, about 500,000 square miles—a land mass the size of Peru—around the world will become suburban, as rich and poor alike flock to urban peripheries. While Silicon Valley works on connecting the cities of the future, a lot of people just want a lawn.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeff Muskus at jmuskus@bloomberg.net

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