Could ultra light rail technologies solve America's transport problems?

The ultra-light Vectorr in action. Image: Flight Rail Corp.

America is home to 320m people. By 2050, it will have added 80m more. With population rise will come a corresponding jump in car travel – and with that, traffic congestion, delay, wasted fuel and polluted air.

According to Federal Highway Administration figures, Americans logged a record 3.1 trillion miles behind the wheel in 2015. Without an effective mitigation strategy in place, the negative consequences of all this will worsen. In other word, the US’s business-as-usual development paradigm of unabated roadway building is unsustainable.

Some think that high speed rail could hold the solution. It’s only now beginning to win support in the US – but it won’t come cheap.

Take the cities of the north east corridor – stretching from Boston to Washington DC, via New York and Philadelphia. Joe Boardman, the president of the national rail agency Amtrak, contends that the 456-mile long, quasi-high-speed connecting this region could be rebuilt and upgraded to world class standards. Such an upgrade would draw increased patronage, taking traffic off the roads – but in 2012, its cost was estimated at $151bn.

On 6 January 2015, the nation’s first true high-speed train route formally broke ground in California, in the agriculturally bountiful San Joaquin Valley. The 800-mile network will one day connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, with eventual links to Sacramento and San Diego, too.

But the cost of the initial 520-mile backbone of the network is estimated to be a pricey $64b. These days, Uncle Sam seems to have neither the deep pockets for nor the inclination to want to invest in more endeavours like these.

Going ultra light

This is where less expensive but more advanced transit modes could fill the bill.

Take the proposed “CyberTran” system. It derives its name from conveyances – or “trans” – that can venture about autonomously, under the command and control of an onboard computer (hence the “cyber” reference). These, unlike traditional rail, would be dispatched on demand.

An artist's impression of the system in action. Image: CyberTran.

Such a system should be cheaper to run, which could help appeal to users. But at the moment it’s largely theoretical. As CyberTran chief executive Neil Sinclair admits: “For CyberTran to be credible to the first buyers requires that an operating system be demonstrated... Once a full scale system is demonstrated, the market will open up to UltraLight Rail Transit.”

A rival system involves the use of atmospheric propulsion. Flight Rail Corp.’s Vectorr system, invented by Max P. Schlienger, would use differential air pressure created by stationary power systems, to move cars along an elevated guideway. Unlike traditional rail, it can purportedly climb grades as steep as 10 percent, and is capable of operating at speeds over 200 mph.

Then there’s SkyTran, developed by a NASA spin-out company. Its own system would see distinctive tear-drop shaped pods would move around their network on a single overhead rail, propelled by magnetic levitation. This would be significantly cheaper to run than a traditional passenger railroad. In the words of Jerry Sanders, SkyTran’s chief executive:

 “At $14m per bidirectional kilometer, SkyTran’s capital cost is an order of magnitude (in most cases 20 times cheaper) than other rail systems... Furthermore, SkyTran uses electricity and does not rely on oil or unproven battery technologies that are difficult to scale.’”

The system should save on power, too. As executive vice president Christopher Perkins explains:

“Passive maglev requires no external power to levitate vehicles. Rather, the magnetic repulsion is produced by the movement of the vehicle over shorted wire coils in the track. Essentially, a linear motor that provides vehicle locomotion does double duty by inducing the levitation effect.”

An artist's impression of SkyTran in action. Image: SkyTran.

Presently, none of the three systems is up and running, though all three are working on pilot projects to demonstrate the technology.

These advanced transit offerings could revolutionise travel the way the train and motor vehicle did after they were first introduced. The key, though, will be getting the innovations beyond the drawings – to prove their efficiencies, and give people the opportunity to actually ride them.

But several important factors could help their causes along. Firstly, the price of gasoline will climb: when this happens, alternatives to conventional-mode travel and transport will begin to look ever more attractive. Secondly, as car travel miles grow, congestion will worsen – and advanced transit approaches could have a real chance.


That future may be closer than you think.

Alan Kandel is the author of the ebook, “The Departure Track: Railways of Tomorrow”. You can buy a copy here.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.