Hyperloop angst and the unfortunate long haul of implementation

Attention Conservation Notice: Fantasy is a key part of planning. It’s often expensive and irritating. But it’s also required. Your projects live by it, and they can also die by it.

There are times in the grand game of politics when people blink during s game of chicken. I think it’s fair to say that some vocal advocates of the California HSR project blinked, and blinked hard, during the past few weeks over the Hyperloop. It’s worth discussing.

If there is one thing anybody in infrastructure or planning should understand, there is a universe of difference between a concept on paper and a funded project, let alone between a funded project and something that exists in real-deal cement. See: the 710 freeway in South Pasadena. There is a whole industry of academic architects who have produced one vision or another of “what City X (LA, New York, Panama) might have been” if we had only followed this architect’s or that architect’s vision for it in the 1950s/1960s/1970s. And don’t get me wrong, I find those alternative trajectories very interesting, along with the nostalgia for those visions, but it’s not like it’s mere caprice keeps plans from becoming reality. A lot of reasons–sometimes even good ones–send us along different paths.

So there’s been quite a bit of huffing and puffing about Hyperloop from the the HSR folks. Market Urbanism threatened to unfollow anybody who brings up Hyperloop on Twitter (which I am thinking was a twitterjest*). Another well-linked takedown seems to be quite earnest in the belief that the Hyperloop presents a threat. I must admit, it does my teeny-tiny evil little heart quite a lot of good to watch people who have advanced their own project based on a good deal of fantasizing stomp around and dismiss as a fantasy the Hyperloop. Future states are all imaginaries, and while some are more realistic than others, somebody had to build the first bullet train even though he or she was told it was a fantasy.

The New Yorker’s Tad Friend describes why Musk is not somebody you should take lightly, for all his over-promising and swagger:

Musk, who grew up in South Africa reading Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series, sees himself as a hero tasked with the lonely burden of saving us all. His pet projects (space flight, electric transport) aim to buy us time to colonize Mars before we destroy Earth. There is something reproving about his blue-eyed stare, as if he’s come back after a spell on Gamma Nebula 7 and is disappointed to find us still burning hydrocarbons and chowing down at Cinnabon. Earthlings, repent!

People laughed at SpaceX—a privately-held rocket company?—but last year its Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial vehicle to dock with the International Space Station. No one thought Musk’s other full-time job, as C.E.O. of Tesla Motors, would work out either, but the company paid back four hundred and sixty-five million dollars in government loans nine years early, and it’s selling more than five thousand electric cars a quarter. Most strikingly, given the raft of production issues the company had to overcome, Tesla’s Model S is beautifully engineered: Consumer Reports gave it the magazine’s highest rating ever.

Yum, Cinnabon. But I digress.

The point is that he’s good at the whole visionary game even if he’s a big bitsy-better-than-thou.

But just being good at the visionary game doesn’t mean your every brain drop becomes reality. Walt Disney envisioned towns, too, but they were impossible to build.

The smartest strategy for the HSR people to do is simply…ignore the Hyperloop. Their blinking and their takedowns remind people of their project’s own, very serious problems. To wit:

1. His shinier, happier fantasy concept beats, hands down, their real project that, by virtue of their own over promising and the endless compromises that always result in democratic politics, is slower and less shiny than they promised it would be just two years ago. This is nobody’s fault. This is politics and reality of futurism and infrastructure policy. The HSR folks made political hay with cute animations of bullet trains and sweeping visualizations narrated by Peter Coyote. Now that they are the old boys, they have to put up with other people’s cutesy renderings taking the spotlight. It’s the law of the jungle.

2. If they spend too much time pointing out the political barriers to the Hyperloop, people will connect the dots and notice that those are the exact same problems facing the HSR, too. Yep, land is a huge problem for the Hyperloop. And it’s a problem for the HSR. Nope, nobody is going to want the Hyperloop going through their community. Guess what? Nobody wants the HSR planted on top of them, either. Yep, $6B is a horribly unrealistic cost estimate, just like the $32 Billion for the HSR six years ago was a horribly unrealistic cost estimate.

There is every likelihood that Musk will get bored and so will everybody else, and Jerry Brown is still Governor, for now. Ignore the Hyperloop and concentrate on getting the HSR out of courts.

But the best satire is, of core, The Daily Show.