Five Things Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Could Mean for the Future of Cities

Hyperloop passenger transport capsule conceptual design sketch. Credit: Elon Musk

Elon Musk, the South Africa-born entrepreneur and inventor, has, in his 42 years, pioneered breakthroughs in everything from digital payments to electric cars to space travel. On Monday he announced plans for his latest dream-slash-venture, an ultra-high-speed transportation network he calls Hyperloop.

Musk’s vision has much to capture the imagination. He sees it as a “fifth mode” of transportation, “after planes, trains, cars, and boats,” yet lacking the flaws that plague these conventional ways of getting around. What Musk has in mind is a low-pressure tube that can run either below ground or above, where pods carrying passengers move along on a cushion of “air bearings,” propelled by both rotors and magnetic accelerators.

It was his severe disappointment with California’s high-speed rail project, currently in the works, that pushed Musk toward thinking up Hyperloop. Musk derides that effort as “a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world.” A trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles on the high-speed rail line is pegged at two hours and 40 minutes, at a one-way ticket cost of $150. Musk believes that he can achieve that same trip in as little as a half an hour, at just $20 per leg.

But his 57-page plan has implications for cities that go far beyond that California pair. Here are five of them:

1. The relationship that matters is city-to-city. “The Hyperloop (or something similar) is, in my opinion,” writes Musk, “the right solution for the specific case of high traffic city pairs that are less than about 1,500 km or 900 miles apart.” Any farther, and a supersonic plane is already a good solution.

But for city pairs within that range, the Hyperloop can be transformative. Musk envisions his network as a commuter rail, making it about as easy for an Angeleno to hold a meeting in San Francisco as on the other side of her own city. In his plans, Musks talks briefly about “splits,” or on-ramps along Hyperloop’s way between its major terminus points. San Diego, Sacramento and Fresno, he writes, are logical on-ramp locations, with a possible extension to Las Vegas. But Musk isn’t particularly interested in the commuter towns along the way that have, in traditional transportation systems, slowed the path between major cities.

2. Urban life is bending toward on-demand. Hyperloop, as Musk sees it, will be made up of pods, or capsules, capable of holding up to 28 passengers each. There will be no need to wait — the vision is for pods to leave every two minutes on average, and every 30 seconds during rush hour. (What about safety? Given Hyperloop’s high-speeds, even that short window creates a 23-mile buffer, on average, between pods.) To Musk, whatever transportation mode California gets in the future must be “ready when the passenger is ready to travel.”

That echoes what we’ve seen with services like Uber or Airbnb, when resources are broken up into discrete bits, whether they’re unused cars or excess rooms, and distributed when and where consumers want them. No more of the “pulsed situation” that we see at airports, Musk writes, where scheduling generates lines. The Hyperloop will, with its regularity, seem like a steady flow. One possibility is that, in turn, it spurs even more on-demand transportation options. If you spend just 30 minutes getting from San Francisco to Los Angeles, you’re unlikely to want to spend another half-hour on a taxi line once you get there.

3. Tapping existing infrastructure makes the impossible possible. It’s not the pods that cost real money, Musk argues. Nor is it the motors to power them. It’s the tubes themselves. In the case of California, though, it’s possible to build the path on pylons above ground, which means “you can almost entirely avoid the need to buy land by following alongside the mostly very straight California Interstate 5 highway, with only minor deviations when the highway makes a sharp turn.”

The use of public resources can drive down costs, something Google has found as it has sought to build out Internet access with its Fiber project. Where it’s necessary to build on private land, Musk writes, the advantage of building above ground is that Hyperloop would inconvenience landowners no more than having a telephone pole on their property.

4. Affordability is the key to sustainability. Musk made his first real fortune on PayPal, a peer-to-peer banking system that made it possible for even the smallest of businesses to collect and distribute funds — and which powered the explosive growth of eBay. Now with his Tesla Motors, Musk says that his ultimate goal includes producing “affordably priced family cars” to “help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy.” It’s clear that Musk’s ambition is for Hyperloop to be an leap ahead, environmentally, as compared to existing modes of transportation. For that to happen, he’ll need to pull cars off the road and planes out of the air, which means keeping ticket prices low.

5. Open source is the way ahead. Hyperloop is an “open source transportation concept,” Musk says, “similar to Linux,” wherein the plans are released absent the copyright we might expect to see. Musk has invited feedback, saying “iteration of the design by various individuals and groups can help bring Hyperloop from an idea to a reality.” In particular, he says, he could use help designing the control mechanism for pods and the stations themselves.

In their new book, The Metropolitan Revolution, the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley describe federal and state governments as “a collection of hardened silos” where transportation departments design transportation-centric solutions. Cities, meanwhile, are “organic communities” where shared responsibilities can come from anywhere. It helps if plans and ideas, then, aren’t held in a proprietary grasp. It’s an openness to openness that is, in fact, key to the seriousness with which commentators have treated Musk’s role as a transportation entrepreneur. After all, he’s just a man with an idea.

The full set of Musk’s plans for Hyperloop are available here.

Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.

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