No, a feasibility study has not proved the hyperloop would work

If only it was feasible. Image: Virgin Hyperloop One.

The Hyperloop, the futuristic transport concept that tech journalists love and grumpy engineers love to hate, is on a PR offensive.

There are several firms trying to turn Elon Musk’s vision of transporting people through metal tubes at supersonic speeds – in a way that would supposedly displace boring old trains and planes – into hard reality. But the one whose plans are furthest advanced is arguably Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO).

And the great man’s latest baby is currently doing a roadshow around America, wooing state and local governments and trying to persuade them to provide the funding, permits and political backing to build full-sized hyperloop lines all over the country. “I believe we could see a hyperloop in the US in years, not decades,” VHO’s press release quotes Sir Richard as saying.

Branson has form when it comes to ambitious deadlines. In 2004 he promised that Virgin Galactic would be running passenger space flights by 2007; 12 years after that deadline, said space flights have not materialised.

But perhaps this will be different. After all, several potential hyperloop projects are being scoped out. And haven’t we had time now to prove if the thing can really whisk real people around at 1080kph – not quite supersonic, and not as fast as Musk originally imagined, but still pretty damn quick – like VHO says it can?

The answer is no – but what we have learned throws a fascinating spotlight onto how the alliance of breathless PR and clickbait merchants has parlayed hyperloop into something that increasing amounts of public officials (not just in America, but in India too) seem to regard as a genuine transport option today.

VHO trumpets that the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition, a group of public and private bodies, has “released results from the first hyperloop feasibility study in the US which confirmed the viability of a St Louis to Kansas City route”. As far as this reporter can tell, that is the only feasibility study into hyperloop VHO or anyone has carried out to date. (I did ask VHO. It hasn’t responded.)

And VHO is very pleased indeed with that study: it’s been saying that it “represents the first phase of actualisation of a full-scale commercial hyperloop system” and that it “examine[d] the technology, constructability and the economics associated with designing and building a Missouri Hyperloop”. They’re not the only one to be pleased: Black & Veatch won an award for their work, as well as extensive media coverage.

Earlier this year, while writing a piece for Modus magazine, I happened to interview one of the people behind that feasibility study, a director at respected engineering consultancy Black & Veatch, which was commissioned by both VHO and the coalition. Black & Veatch has tremendous experience in designing and developing various kinds of infrastructure projects, but one area the firm’s experience does not extend to, as its director freely admitted, is large-scale transport infrastructure – the sort that requires lots of steel and concrete, like roads and railways do and hyperloop would. Hiring a firm with no track record in relevant projects would be unthinkable for any serious public authority trying to build some major transport infrastructure. The director in question’s area of expertise was data centre projects.


When I sought to confirm that this feasibility study had indeed proved that all the bits of VHO’s proposed hyperloop – magnetic levitation, a vacuum tube, and a passenger-carrying pod – could all work at near-supersonic speeds and pay for itself to boot, I was told that, in fact, “we did not evaluate VHO’s technology; we made an assumption that they can get up to 500-600mph as promised”.

In fact, what the study had essentially established was that VHO could build a hyperloop line from St Louis to Kansas City along a certain route, with certain stations in certain places, that there would be space to do this and that enough passengers would come to cover the cost of the project, which their “high-level” estimate puts at $8-10bn, all assuming  VHO’s proprietary technology worked. Whether that assumption is actually true remained firmly unexamined.

Which brings us to a third problem with this study. Estimating what a road or railway ought to cost is relatively straightforward: so many of them have been built that today’s engineer has a vast database of cost estimates at their fingertips.

But nobody has ever built a fully working hyperloop, which, to make any use of its top speed, would need to be tens if not hundreds of kilometres in length. VHO’s prototype in Nevada is just 500 metres long. Its pod has not reached even half the target top speed – and it has never carried a single passenger. There are therefore no reliable cost estimates for what it would cost to build the roughly 370km Missouri route, let alone a clear idea of how much it would cost to operate.

In fairness, Black & Veatch’s experts freely admit that more work needs to be done to prove that hyperloop is technically, let alone commercially, viable. But they didn’t publicly admit it until I asked them – by which time the inaccurate press releases published on the back of their work had long been turned into news headlines.

VHO is now promising more “feasibility studies” in the states of Texas and Ohio. It remains to be seen whether they’ll prove the feasibility of anything except misleading PR campaigns.

 
 
 
 

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.