July 21, 2017

Hyperloop needs same level of local transit innovation

The need for speed makes the state-of-the-art Hyperloop transit propulsion system promoted by financiers such as Elon Musk almost incidental. New York to Washington DC in 29 minutes? Heck, you've been able to do that in an airplane for the better part of a century. But the real challenges are just as old and time-worn. What's required is that old technologies like local urban transit must advance to match the challenges of new technologies like the Hyperloop.

This Hyperloop hype image prepared for Carnegie-Mellon (urban version of a Roger Dean "Yes" album cover)
only feeds the impression of Hyperloop as an unattainable fantasy.

That's why demonstrations always take place in the desert or some other irrelevant place. And it's why artists' conceptions of the completed systems tend to look like a 1930s "futurama" - sort of an urban equivalent of a desert. Vintage visionaries like Le Corbusier (and later Hannah-Barbera and the Jetsons) were grappling with the same problems of reconciling high speed technology with actual urban living that we're still facing today.

And it's why Musk documented his government "approval" yesterday in a 140-character Tweet instead of a zillion page Environmental Impact Statement - following the lead of President Trump's favorite form of communication. Now that's speed!

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is already on board as well. The tone was set when the city recently granted Under Armour's Port Covington $660 Million in future tax revenue, exactly the amount they asked for. The Mayor knows that it would be just as easy for the Hyperloop to bypass Baltimore as it whizzes from Washington to New York.

But Baltimore and other cities tried to transform cities for speed as far back as the 1950s. Countless urban blocks were demolished in those days to build high rise apartments surrounded by vacuous open space and high speed expressways. It didn't work.

It's really The Boring Corporation

The real frontier barrier that Elon Musk is breaking is with his company that's ironically called The Boring Corporation. That's because in order to satisfy the Hyperloop's need for speed, the only satisfactory geographic frontier is underground. Speed isn't the critical technology - it's tunneling! Subterrainia is the new desert. America was right in "A Horse With No Name" when they described the new ocean as: "the desert with its life underground and the perfect disguise above". (Now if we can only figure out their Ventura Highway's "alligator lizards in the air.")

The physics of speed is relatively easy. Friction is the only thing in the way. That's why a spacecraft orbiting the earth in 90 minutes is a piece of cake. The hard part is finding an environment to do it in. The answer is state-of-the-art boring, as in boring a tunnel. We need tunnel boring machines that can respond to virtually any geology encountered deep in the earth. We must ensure that the Boston "big-dig" and Seattle "big bertha" debacles were tunnel learning experiences equivalent of the Titanic, Hindenburg and Apollo 13.

The other challenge is geometry. Minimizing friction requires an almost straight travel trajectory. Human physiology requires it too. There's a human limit to the roller-coaster thrill ride effect. Underground is where this geometric challenge can be met - perhaps the only place. The Magnetic Levitation concept of the 1990s with vehicles darting in and out of tunnels like an obstacle course seems to be gone. With it has gone the idea that MagLev or a similar technology could satisfy shorter trips of just a few miles. High speed propulsion is not the problem. It's the geometry to support it. Cities don't easily accommodate long straight lines.

Of course, speed has the same needs regardless of how it's powered. There's no inherent reason that conventional "heavy rail" subways and other transit lines can't be powered by MagLev sometime in the future as well.

But the deeper the tunnel, the better. Way underground, even the curvature of the earth is beneficial. It's somewhat of a shock to ride the New York City subway system which was built just under the surface of the streets over a century ago with very crude dangerous manual digging and with far fewer pipes and conduits in the way, and then exit the system on the brand new Second Avenue subway with its long escalator rides from deep in the bowels of Manhattan. Urban living needs to adapt to the new digging technology.

Proposed Hyperloop Station platform deep down in the earth

Baltimore must meet the Hyperloop challenge

The Hyperloop system looks like it will be a quantum leap deeper than modern subways. The current New York to Washington proposal would only "come up for air" at two intermediate places - Philadelphia and Baltimore. Sorry, Newark and Wilmington, but you're victims of the cruel fate of geometry.

So the proposal would apparently need to use elevators instead of escalators at the stations. High speed, high capacity elevators will require another engineering breakthrough. That's the way technology feeds on itself. Innovation begets innovation.

Those four stations at the four cities will need to be very special and important places indeed, with very high accessibility. With only those four Hyperloop stops, the existing Amtrak Northeast Corridor rail line will need to be refashioned to emphasize shorter feeder trips into the Hyperloop Line. Amtrak and MARC Commuter rail will need to emphasize stations like New Carrollton, Odenton and even the inner city corridor from North Avenue to Upton to Sandtown which will be bypassed by the proposed new multi-billion dollar West Baltimore tunnel.

Baltimore also has a special challenge in that unlike the other cities, its Amtrak station is not really downtown and does not have very good local transit access. This can be improved, of course, but we've already failed once with its pathetic light rail spur connection. And Penn Station's surrounding neighborhood, with a recent momentum built on education and arts, has only limited further potential for new development specifically tailored for a role as the city's high speed portal to New York and Washington.

Hyperloop transit will require brand new thinking with a totally blank slate, not a piggyback on existing development momentum.

It may very well turn out that the best place to build Baltimore's Hyperloop Station is along the Amtrak tracks at the West Baltimore MARC Station, at the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere". This area is truly a blank slate for new Hyperloop oriented development and local transit innovation. Downtown Baltimore is now being pulled eastward and this would push it back westward.

But the blank slate may need to be even bigger than that. The challenge of those new deep elevators may be best met with a new local subway line that dives deep enough into the earth to meet the hyperlink line on its own level.

Imagine that you've just gotten off the Hyperloop at the Baltimore Station. Do you then get in line for one of the elevators to come up to the city surface? Or do you walk over to the new subway line on the same underground platform, from which you can go anywhere else on the city and regional system? It would also need to be everything the dead Red Line wasn't, with high capacity, speed and connectivity. It would need to be so attractive that it would become an integral indispensable part of the whole multi-billion dollar Hyperlink project.

The new Boring Company tunnel technology that builds the Hyperloop line will be equally capable of building a new companion Baltimore subway line.

Innovation begets innovation.

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