More shadowboxing with the Hyperloop

Eric Jaffe has a column up over at the Atlantic Cities that is making my brain squirm a bit. It’s called Another Reason Not to Build the Hyperloop. The reason is, I guess, this quote from Sir Edward Lister who is the deputy mayor for planning in London:

“The trouble we always have, especially when dealing with government and trying to negotiate funding packages, is you always get this argument: you don’t want that scheme because this next scheme is going to be more modern, much faster, much cheaper,” he said. “Therefore you kill off the current scheme but you never quite get to the next scheme because another few years have rolled by. That is a danger. I’ve come to the conclusion that it almost doesn’t matter what you build, just build it. It always gets used and it gets used very quickly and fast becomes overcrowded. In any kind of mass transit operation, get moving with whatever you’ve got, which is current technology.”

The whole piece just strikes me as wrong-headed, and normally I agree with pretty much everything Jaffe writes about. It’s a short piece so maybe I don’t understand what he’s saying, but with what’s there, I have some grumps.

Ok, first of all, to the title: nobody is really proposing to build the Hyperloop. HSR’s enemies might have jumped on the idea to flog HSR with, but I haven’t seen any state reps sponsoring any bills to divert HSR money to the Hyperloop. Plenty of people just want the HSR to go away because the public management of the project has been less than stellar so far, but that’s largely independent of the Hyperloop.

Second: speculative designs about transportation are to designers what food is to your tummy. We see these things constantly in transportation. They’re fun, and necessary, and nobody usually takes them all that seriously until they are dug up for retrospective shows years later.

I have never once, not in nearly 25 years of working in infrastructure, ever seen a speculative design ‘kill’ a proposed project by distracting project supporters. Yes, there is usually kvetching that the project is ‘too expensive for what we are getting’, but I have never seen a project go down because somebody came in with a speculative design that distracted us from building the actual project on the table or that stole the project’s thunder. Why? Because infrastructure IS actually breathtakingly expensive, and people always ask: shouldn’t we be getting more given what we are spending?

And then whatever it is usually gets built anyway, except for some projects that deserved to die from the get-go. (Rick Perry’s SuperHighway comes to mind, but even that one appears to be getting new life.)

Anyway, I wish Lister would give me a list of projects that actually died because of an alternative speculative proposal. Anybody got a story of how pod cars snuffed a light rail proposal? Anybody? If California HSR dies, it won’t be the Hyperloop’s fault. Hyperloop might not be helping, but there are plenty of good reasons why the HSR might go down at this point, and none of them have to do with people being too starry-eyed over the Hyperloop.

The attitude of just build whatever you have and it will all be crowded strikes me as awfully complacent. Plenty of systems that aren’t London build and operate under capacity for decades, and with negative marginal revenues, the idea that we should just build and build strikes me as just as wrong as dismissing every project as too expensive. The public is not an endless source of money, and major systems that can charge what London does for fares strike me as uniquely privileged in the transit world.

And how do you ever innovate if your answer is always: just build what we have?