“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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Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.