“It's not a transport mode – or even a technology”: Public authorities should stop wasting money on hyperloop

This may well never happen. Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technology.

Remember the Hyperloop? In August 2013, superstar businessman and outer space-botherer Elon Musk published his concept for an entirely new transport system. Levitated pods whooshing round aluminium tubes at 1,220km/h would deliver a “massive return” by being far faster, cheaper, safer and just god-damn better-er than existing public transport.

The tech media, already keen Musk followers owing to his Tesla electric car business and his SpaceX commercial rocket venture, lapped it all up. Since then, clickbait headline after clickbait headline has breathlessly told us that the Hyperloop is “really happening“, “officially” being built by Musk’s company SpaceX (despite its insistence that it’s not doing any such thing), and wait for it, “kinda serious“. Take that, high speed rail! Naysayers like your humble correspondent, who took a more sceptical view back in 2013, were chastised for failing to recognise Musk’s brilliant visionary qualities.

Since then, the Hyperloop has not got much closer to leaving Elon Musk’s sketch pad and becoming a commercial reality. Of the two main companies trying to develop the idea, the more sober contender, Hyperloop One, has managed to reach the stage where it launched a metal sled along a track at less than one-fifth the promised Hyperloop speed. It still has no idea how to safely transport passengers in a sealed pod inside a tube.

The other firm, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, seems to be mainly preoccupied nowadays with “augmented reality windows“. These sound nice, but won’t help achieve those near-supersonic speeds.

If that were all that was happening, there might not be any cause for concern. But in the last few months, an alarming development has started to emerge: public bodies have started to invest time and money in the Hyperloop.

French state rail company SNCF has found the money to buy shares in Hyperloop One; this is the same SNCF which posted record losses this year, and is struggling to find the cash to keep its regional train services going. A Russian sovereign wealth fund has also invested, apparently with the blessing of President Vladimir Putin. The Slovakian government has also bought into the idea to link up its cities. Deutsche Bahn is working with the rival Hyperloop developer on its fancy windows.

And there’s the worry. As long as the Hyperloop remains the plaything of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, it need not trouble the serious business of delivering transport infrastructure for cities. But as soon as public authorities and policymakers start to invest in this idea – either financially or politically – we should all be scared.

Because the Hyperloop is not, contrary to what its developers claim, a transport mode. It’s not a technology, either. It is a concept.

Musk called it right back in 2013, when he called his 57-page pipe dream an “alpha concept”. For all the lab work, fundraising and bubbly news stories of the past three years, there is still no actual settled design for the Hyperloop system. There’s not even any conclusive proof that is even technically feasible.

Nor is there any proof that it’s affordable. Hyperloop cost estimates to date have failed to price in realistic costs for land acquisition: they are guilty of treating the Hyperloop like a mass-produced widget that can be churned out ultra-cheap on a production line. In practice, infrastructure projects are notoriously resistant to this lean and mean approach.

To a non-geek, infrastructure is boring, and for a very good reason. Major projects like Crossrail are expensive, complicated to deliver and require several years of studies, consultations, and legislative and regulatory approval to get done properly. As a public authority, you can only justify spending that kind of time and money if you’re certain that the thing is so boringly conventional, so tried and tested and trusted, that will work at the end of it all.

Dream on, lads: a proposed US hyperloop network. Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technology.

It’s also, incidentally, the only way you can convince private finance to back the project, as governments around the world are trying to get them to do more and more. Venture capital’s all very well for the exciting bit in the laboratory, but to build an infrastructure project, you need cheaper, long-term finance, which looks for low-risk, technologically safe schemes.

We as a planet face an infrastructure gap. We just can’t sustain economic growth without improving our infrastructure. Any government that takes the Hyperloop hype that “this is happening now” at face value risks wasting precious resources on an idea that may never become reality – all the while, not spending those resources on technologies, like high-speed rail, that exist and deliver real benefits.

So by all means, let the Hyperloopies have their fun. Let them raise cash from private backers and continue to shoot bits of metal on rails in the Nevada desert. But please, for all our sakes, don’t think it can replace boring old trains and buses just yet.

René Lavanchy is a recovering infrastructure finance journalist and tweets at @InfraPunk.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.