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Hyperloops, Pods, Maglevs, and Other Stupid Transportation Ideas

August 15, 2013

Earlier this week Elon Musk proposed his idea for the Hyperloop.   I think it is safe to say it is only a pretty rendering removed from a child’s crayon drawing and idea.  Yet magically people across the country have become enamored with the thought of moving through bank teller tubes across the country at speeds that rival that of sound.  Ignore the logistics and technicalities of it for a moment.  Ignore the fact that it would require thousands upon thousands of miles of flat straight surface, unless it is to be the most extreme roller coaster the world has ever known.  Ignore the fact that this idea is not new at all and has been around since the early 1900’s.  And as brilliant as Musk may think he is, and regardless of his success with space travel and Tesla, he can’t pull this off.  It isn’t so much the idea of Hyperloop that is frustrating.  There is nothing wrong with looking towards future possibilities, but when it compromises the attention to viable solutions it becomes detrimental.  People are not clamoring for a new way to travel between L.A. and New York right now.  But people are concerned with their daily commutes and the expense that personal transportation brings upon a household.

Pie in the sky dreaming such as the Hyperloop takes our attention away from issues that are truly important right now.  Fixing congestion, improving access and mobility, restoring our transit systems to an acceptable level of service.  Tel Aviv is gambling their transit on a personal pod idea that has never been tested and quite frankly sounds ridiculous from a pragmatic point of view.  It looks and sounds cool from a Jetson’s perspective but that’s about it.  Google is investing heavily in driver-less cars that are intended to reduce accident rates and improve efficiency.  Sounds great, except that it will do little to slow our sprawling mess; cities and waistlines.  And then there is Atlanta with its Maglev.  The Maglev isn’t really that crazy of an idea when compared to many of the others out there, but it is pretty close.

In a previous post I had summed up a MagLev as a monorail, which isn’t entirely true.  They can be at grade instead of elevated, but they are just about as useless for intercity transit.  The Maglev was designed with a handful of primary goals in mind; speed and sound reduction.  It is levitated to reduce friction and allowed a greater acceleration and top speed when compared to traditional wheels on rails.  Sounds great if you are going between New York to L.A.  Not so much if you are traveling from downtown to Turner Field.  And that has been a topic of discussion lately.  The Braves, who have been on quite the successful run as of late, want transit to the stadium and want it to be part of their new lease negotiations at Turner Field.  Most of the city wants transit to that area.  Fans want to take it to the games, the city would probably like to see it to help develop an area that has long been discussed and dreamed about, and existing residents would probably like to see an easy way to access downtown rather than by 2 interstates, an off ramp and a parking deck.  But Maglev isn’t the way, and it can easily be classified with that of the Hyperloop, personal pods, and driver-less cars.  Speed is not an issue over such a short distance and mitigating sound isn’t really that much of an issue when passing over Interstate 20 or when approaching a stadium with 40,000 of your loudest most rowdy friends. 

The primary local attraction to it is that it is futuristic and cool, and would be privately funded.*  This deserves an asterisk because it won’t be the case.  First is the acquisition of land.  Likely to be provided and paid for by the city.  See the Dome.  Secondly it will likely open at the beginning of some near baseball season.  The Braves are doing well and with a fancy new “transit” line; viola you have some packed cars for a few weeks except……

1)      The Braves aren’t known for selling out games.  In fact despite how well they have played this year they have only done it a handful of times.  And when teams like the Marlins, Padres, and Cubs come to town a ticket to a Braves game isn’t the hardest thing to acquire.  So at best the Maglev would see 81 days of heavy activity.  So unless the developer of the local Maglev plans on shutting it down the other 284 days it will likely be running at a loss….

2)      Because it won’t be convenient for the people that live in the area or could, pending redevelopment, and just about every other potential customer.  MARTA has a lot of success pulling riders from the suburbs (primarily northern) to the airport and to midtown and downtown for events.  Primarily because it is really easy.  Drive to a free park and ride, wait for a train and it is a straight shot to the destination.  For Turner Field, not so much, and yes most fans are suburbanites.  The Maglev would likely need to be routed towards Georgia State Station as Five Points would be too difficult from an engineering and cost perspective.  So that means taking a train to Five Points, transferring to one to Georgia State and then catching the Maglev.  If people already don’t like transferring to a bus at Five Points they aren’t going to like another transfer because it won’t be easy or…..

3)      Cheap.  Unless the Maglev works out some kind of deal with MARTA for transfers it will result in people carrying two transit cards and paying a total of four fares.  The beauty of the bus shuttle is that there is no additional fee to pay.  The beauty of using a traditional rail line such as continuing the streetcar or MARTA is that a transfer would be simple.  And in order to capture “choice riders” it has to be simple.  And baseball fans are choice riders.  If it isn’t they are more likely to hop in their car.  The added time of multiple transfers and multiple fares is easily mitigated by the abundance of cheap parking in this city and easy interstate access to most things.  It also does little for the existing or any potential new residents as they would be faced with the same fare and transfer conundrum for daily commutes which would result in…..

4)      The Maglev being propped up and supported by some sort of local government funds because 81 days of activity and a few commuters outside of baseball games isn’t going to keep the Maglev afloat year round.  And if that doesn’t cover the revenue/expenditure gap then the fares will be ridiculously high.  See the Las Vegas monorail at $5 per trip.  Even on New Year’s Eve no one has to clamor for a seat in their modestly sized cars.  All of this resulting in one giant…..

Missed Opportunity.  All because we became too fascinated with some new untested, and largely unsuccessful form of transportation that ignores the basic principles and components that make transit successful.  The same way the Hyperloop pulls attention away from a high speed rail solution.  The same way driver-less cars pulls us away from transitioning to a society less based on personal automobile ownership.  The same way that Tel Aviv’s pods do whatever it is that they are trying to do.  If transit is what the Braves want then it needs to be cohesive with the existing city system.  Multi-modal is great.  But when there are too many modes that require too much effort to navigate it stands no chance at being successful.  It needs to be a MARTA extension or an additional branch off the streetcar.  It need not be a Disneyland monorail type of system.  It needs to be something that invests in the neighborhood and can be regularly used by those outside of baseball games. 

If the Braves are serious about better connecting to the city then they should be serious about doing it in a way that is beneficial to more than just the game day afternoon fans.  Not only could it open the door to new and additional fans to help fill some of those empty seats, but it could turn the area into a magnet for development and activity like the neighborhoods that surround Fenway, Camden, Wrigley and hopefully what is occurring around Busch.  This doesn’t mean that the Braves foot the entire bill for a streetcar extension.  But they could contribute the same way they would have to a Maglev.  The remaining portion could be picked up by the local governments, which in all actuality would have been likely spent to keep the Maglev afloat when it triumphantly failed in the same spirit as the Detroit People Mover and the Sydney monorail (recently closed).

We hear a lot about these private-public partnerships as a means and future to do big things as government funds have been drying up.  Well here is a chance for us to do it the right way and to set an example.  Let’s stop being enamored with Jetson style ideas and get serious about pragmatic solutions. 

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