Thu 18 May 2017 - Impact

Preparing For The Infinite Suburb

A Q&A With Alan Berger and Joel Kotkin.


Third in a series of conversations during Infrastructure Week. See the previous Q&A with Dan Katz, Transportation Policy Counsel at Hyperloop One, and Parag Khanna, Geo-strategist and author of Connectography.


The suburbs are back. In April, New York Magazine sounded the alarm that “more and more people are fleeing New York.” Time discovered just a few weeks ago that millennials are moving to the suburbs in droves. Recent studies have shown that millennials associate homeownership with the American dream more so than Generation X or baby boomers. As the world rapidly urbanizes, suburban migration presents an opportunity to define what this growth will look like — and how it might fit in more synergistically with urban cores and rural communities.
Alan and Joel


The truth is that the suburbs never fell from favor, we just stopped noticing that they became another form of the city. The shape of suburbia is an obsession for MIT professor Alan Berger and his co-author Joel Kotkin. Alan runs the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism and teaches in the Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning, while Joel is a writer and Professor of Urban Studies at Chapman University in California. Prof. Berger is also a judge for our Hyperloop One Global Challenge.


The two of them accurately highlighted this suburban resurgence long before it was popular, so we picked their brains about how they foresee emerging technology like Hyperloop playing a role in the trend. We discussed how new transportation modes might support suburban mobility and, perhaps, reshape suburbia as we know it.


We hear you have an upcoming book called Infinite Suburbia. What does “Infinite Suburbia” mean?


Berger: The book’s title is meant to be polemical and measurable. Global urbanization is heading towards infinite suburbia. Around the world, the vast majority of people are moving to cities not to inhabit their centers, but to suburbanize their peripheries. Why? For many reasons, and almost always by their own choosing. Thus, when the United Nations projects the number of future “urban” residents, or when researchers quantify the amount of land that will soon be “urbanized,” these figures largely reflect the unprecedented suburban expansion of cities. By 2030, an estimated nearly half a million square miles (1.2 million square kilometers) of land worldwide will become urbanized, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the United States alone, an additional 85,000 square miles (220,000 square kilometers) of rural land will be urbanized between 2003 and 2030 . Given that these figures represent the conversion of currently rural land at the urban fringe, these lands are slated to become future, seemingly infinite suburbias.


Kotkin: In the United States, 69 percent of the population lives in suburbs. As late as 2010, over 75 percent of American jobs lay outside the urban core. Many other developed countries are also majority-suburban. In the global South, it is estimated that 45 percent of the 1.4 billion people who will become new urban residents will settle in peri-urban suburbs — areas where urbanized and rural areas meet . The sheer magnitude of land conversion taking place, coupled with the fact that the majority of the world’s population already lives in suburbs, demands that new attention and creative energy be devoted to the imminent suburban expansion.


Past and projected rural land conversion in the US at state, regional, and national levels. Source: https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/journals/pnw_2009_white001.pdf


You point to suburbia as a truly global phenomenon. What does this say about common values across cultures?


Kotkin: This reflects essential human desires for personal space, contact with nature, safety and, in some cases, better educational options. Dense cities are attractive particularly to those with high incomes and those without children. When people get into their thirties, and start contemplating a family, or simply a quieter life, they usually head to suburbia.


Why do the suburbs get such a bad rap?


Kotkin: It started early on in Britain, where suburbs offended many of the same people who are offended now — the intelligentsia, artists and gentry. Suburbs have been associated with crassness, ugliness and blamed for the decline of cities. Unlike urban cores, suburbs have few boosters; most media and major academic institutions are clustered in denser, inner city areas. Planning departments have long ignored them, or tried to figure out how to undermine them. Now, the greens are also a factor, weighing against suburban life. Simply put: everyone of consequence generally hates them, except for the vast majority of metropolitan residents who live there.


What do you think earlier proponents of moving from cites got wrong, how can we harness new technology in a way that offers greater choice and sustainability?


Kotkin: The initial problems came from not confronting such issues as quality of life, social space and walking opportunities. Some tract suburbs provided better, often more affordable housing, but with little in the way of social amenities. Fortunately this is changing in many new developments, as can be seen in places like Woodlands and Cinco Ranch outside Houston, or Valencia and Irvine in Southern California.


Berger: My research group at MIT is currently working on a project that envisions the future of the American suburb past 2060. We have focused on the continued development of polycentricity in metropolitan areas and a tendency to expand in space as transportation technology, infrastructure, and policies allow. The framework of polycentricity will be carried forward because of spatial economics and the lowering cost of distance to affect location decisions. This future could plausibly include Level 5 autonomy (no human intervention required) for most vehicles in operation, where all driving situations can be handled by an autonomous driving system (car, truck, or all-terrain vehicle). Zero carbon emissions and Level 5 automation are absolutely in the near future, probably before Generation Z is buying cars for themselves.


Personal transportation modes will remain dominant in suburbia, but shared automobiles will transform the need for bus/rail service in suburbs. All of this assumes that consumer adoption and regulatory approval are achievable and that there is ubiquitous, reliable, and secure, low-cost wireless connectivity to the Internet-of-Things. Research suggests that level 5 autonomy will lead to 80% accident reduction.


The new spatial economics of automation will create huge environmental dividends. Reduced paving will lead to less urban flooding, less forest fragmentation, soil conservation, more groundwater recharge, and more landscape to use for common goods. Total automation will radically change the daily needs of various population segments. I can imagine increased long-distance commuting and mobile office vehicles, drone delivery for many errands, on-demand care and newly mobile elderly segments, and the elimination of drunk driving to name a few.


Conceptual view of future suburban fabric. Image Credit: Matthew Spremulli, MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism.


Alan, you’re one of our esteemed judges for the Hyperloop One Global Challenge. Reviewing the applications – or engaging with teams and stakeholders at the event – what was one of the biggest surprises for you?


Berger: At a recent review of the U.S. finalist proposals in Washington D.C., I was pleasantly surprised by what I would describe as ‘regional optimism’. There was great enthusiasm and acknowledgement that we need to disrupt the broken transportation systems that are not serving emerging regional economies well. For instance, many individual cities talked about how connecting with regional partners would rejuvenate cities well beyond their own borders. There was a palpable energy to fix things and to pragmatically solve big problems that have national implications, not just local ones. It is truly rare to be in a room all day (literally 9 straight hours) with state and local agency heads from all over the U.S., the people in the day-to-day regulatory and political trenches of their cities, and hear them dream about the future in such uninhibited ways.


You’re at a dinner party and a colleague proclaims Hyperloop only makes sense for intercity transport. How do you respond?


Berger: I would politely tell my colleague she needed to think about the broader applications of the infrastructure. The Hyperloop's value is exponentially greater than that of the technology itself. Like other new infrastructure, it will be joined with other innovations — 'packetized' — creating a multiplier effect. In the case of the Hyperloop, when a pod reaches its exit it will begin to function as an autonomous vehicle and completely solve the ‘last mile’ problem. The passenger will continue to ride in the same car until it reaches its final destination. What a “city” is will be redefined in the extended regional context of commuting extra long distances in short times.


You’ve mentioned that even though more than 70 percent of people in the U.S. live in suburban areas — the suburbs are still growing. How can the U.S. successfully accommodate growing suburban interest and what can be done to invest in/revitalize/repurpose existing suburban infrastructure?


Kotkin: The key thing is to take advantage of new technologies. An overwhelming dependence on the personal car, and the ineffectiveness of rail transit (as can proved in declining market shares in many markets) — means some new approaches are necessary that are more effective and less costly. Billions have been spent on light rail and subways in dispersed urban areas like Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and Atlanta but this has not increased transit share. New technologies will soon make these systems even less relevant and useful.


Berger: Joel is absolutely correct that tech innovations will change the infrastructural situation in suburbia. I think the key issue here is how we define and fund old vs. new infrastructure. There's little recognition that we need new forms of transport, and that building new infrastructure is not the same as modernizing old infrastructure. Of course, repairing bridges and helping to maintain state and national infrastructure are roles the federal government should and must continue to play. Despite that, the federal government needs to step into the future if America is going to continue to be the great transportation innovator that developed our magnificent web of trains, planes and automobile routes on a scale never seen or even imagined before.


In addition to new forms of infrastructure, government needs to re-think transportation capital. Our federal funding model is stuck in the 1950s, servicing city cores with inefficient mobility. There aren't any signs that it's going to finance the innovative infrastructure projects we need for more spread out city forms. Private investors are best positioned to understand and act on the future growth dynamics that will make these new modes succeed.


Before “sprawl” became a contested word, Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for calling for more decentralization and opportunities for individuals to move away from the city. On the introduction of the automobile he wrote, man is “like a bird born in captivity, which finds the door opened. Soon he will learn that he can fly; and when he learns that he is free, he is gone.” In what ways do emerging technologies today have the power to give people greater choice to decide where to live, work, and experience leisure time?


Berger: Wright’s Broadacre City should be reimagined with a Hyperloop! But seriously, we can't sacrifice the need for environmental safeguards, or for safety and security in infrastructure. Neither should the federal government dictate things like location choice by telling people where to live. Our government has to be a partner, not an obstacle in these arenas. It should be developing streamlined, efficient, modern regulations that enable the rapid growth of new transportation technologies — technologies that are themselves key to an environmentally sustainable future. Government should refocus the federal funding apparatus, this time as an active participant in public-private partnerships — the so-called Three Ps.


Kotkin: The new systems, like Uber and Lyft, allow suburbanites greater flexibility at the same time the internet provides opportunity to turn the home into a primary workplace. In the future, the move towards Hyperloop technology and automated vehicles will further shatter the isolating aspects of suburban living. The beauty of suburban living — quiet, safe, allowing space — really evolves if you can strip out the maddening commute by car or even train.


Header image credit: MIG|SvR.


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FAQ

  • Q. What is Virgin Hyperloop?

    We're a privately-held company on a mission to create fast, effortless journeys that expand possibilities and eliminate the barriers of distance and time.

  • Q. Why are you building a hyperloop?

    There are too many people caught bumper-to-bumper in traffic, who have to make a hard choice with their family on where to live and work, and who are limited in their access to experiences and opportunities. We're building a system that will give back time and deliver the travel experience of the future.

  • Q. Why do we need hyperloop now?

    The number of cars is set to double worldwide by 2040, same with air and trucking. We are already dealing with the effects of pollution, lack of access, and congestion. If we only invest in the same technologies we’ve had for more than a century, tomorrow will look like today, only much worse. It’s been over a century since the Wright Brothers first showed us human flight was possible. It’s time for a new era in transportation capable of carrying us forward for the next 100 years.

  • Q. How much funding has Virgin Hyperloop received?

    To date, we have received over $400 million.

  • Q. Who are the key investors in Virgin Hyperloop?

    A major investor of ours is DP World, a leading enabler of global trade who sees the potential of sustainable hyperloop-enabled cargo systems. Additionally, we are backed by the Virgin Group, an industry leader across rail, aviation, ships, and even spacecrafts. For more on our investors, visit the company page.

  • Q. Does Virgin Hyperloop have any partners?

    Virgin Hyperloop One is the only hyperloop company that has a strategic partnership with a mass transportation company, the Virgin Group, an industry leader across rail, aviation, ships, and even spacecrafts. Another key partner of ours is DP World, a leading enabler of global trade who sees the potential of sustainable hyperloop-enabled cargo systems. Other industry-leading partners include KPMG, Foster + Partners, Systra, BIG, SNCF, GE, Deutsche Bahn, Black & Veatch, McKinsey, Deloitte, Jacobs, Turner & Townsend, ARUP, and Steer, among others.

  • Q. Is Elon Musk an investor or affiliated with Virgin Hyperloop?

    No, there’s no connection with Elon Musk.

  • Q. How do you plan to scale up operations around the world?

    We aren't just building a hyperloop; we're building a network of public and private partners to scale an integrated supply chain ecosystem. Our business model is based on partnerships that create local jobs and opportunities for those who choose to invest in this technology. We are working at the highest level of governments around the globe to put in place commercial agreements to make hyperloop a reality.

  • Q. What is hyperloop?

    Hyperloop is a new mode of transportation designed to eliminate the barriers of distance and time for both people and freight. It can travel at speeds approaching 700mph, connecting cities like metro stops - and it has zero direct emissions. The journeys can be booked on demand so there’s no wait time or delays.

  • Q. How does hyperloop work?

    With hyperloop, vehicles, called pods, accelerate gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube. The pod floats along the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag.

  • Q. Has hyperloop technology been proven?

    On May 12th, 2017, we made history two minutes after midnight when we successfully launched our vehicle using electromagnetic propulsion and levitation under near-vacuum conditions at our full-scale test site in the Nevada Desert. We've since run hundreds of tests, acquiring validated knowledge that only comes from real-world testing. For more info on DevLoop, our 500 m test track, visit our progress page.

  • Q. How fast can hyperloop go?

    We estimate that the top speed for a passenger vehicle or light cargo will be 670 miles per hour or 1080 kilometers per hour. That is about 3 times faster than high-speed rail and 10-15 times faster than traditional rail. The average speed vehicles travel will vary based on the route and customer requirements.

  • Q. Why keep the tube at low-pressure and not at a perfect vacuum?

    A perfect vacuum would decrease the drag on the vehicle even more, but not significantly. We have already gotten rid of 99.9% of the air in the tube. Lower levels of vacuum than this are important if you are performing scientific experiments, but the cost would not be worthwhile.

  • Q. How is hyperloop different from high-speed trains?

    Hyperloop is an entirely new mode - think the best of trains, planes, and the metro. Hyperloop is on-demand, offering flexible travel schedules with no stops, no transfers, and no weather delays – all at speeds about 3 times faster than high-speed-rail and less cost. Hyperloop is highly efficient, with a smaller environmental impact than high-speed rail because the closed system can be tunneled below or elevated above ground, avoiding dangerous at-grade crossings. The VHO system is 100% electric and can reach higher speeds than high-speed rail for less energy due to our proprietary electric motor and low-drag environment.

  • Q. Is hyperloop safe?

    Fast, effortless journeys go hand-in-hand with journeys where everything works reliably without interference, and where all passengers feel comfortable and safe. The Virgin Hyperloop is designed to be inherently safer than other modes, with multiple redundancies in place. Our system operates autonomously in an enclosed tube and is not susceptible to weather delays, accidents from at-grade crossings, human error, or power outages. Our proprietary high-speed switching architecture eliminates unsafe track configurations and moving trackside parts, a failure point of traditional rail with mechanical switches.

  • Q. How do you plan to get hyperloop certified?

    As new mode, we have to prove our safety case to regulators and work with them to develop a regulatory framework, so passengers can ride the hyperloop in years not decades. We are encouraged by the support we are seeing at the local and federal level around the world to support hyperloop certification based on the fundamentals of safe operating that are already standard practice. In March 2019, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, created the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council to explore the regulation and permitting of hyperloop technology to bring this new form of mass transportation to the United States. This Council is an important step forward in recognizing hyperloop is a new transportation mode and that we need to shift our mindset and acknowledge that this technology does not fit into a regulatory structure that is over 100 years old. The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DGMOVE) has also been leading discussions with hyperloop companies to advance regulatory standards and, in India, the Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA), Prof. Vijayraghavan, has set up an independent committee called the Consultative Group on Future of Transportation (CGFT) to explore the regulatory path for hyperloop. For more, visit our regulatory progress pages.

  • Q. What will it feel like to ride hyperloop?

    While flying through a tube at more than 1000km/h might seem like a thrill ride, the truth is we are able to mitigate any uncomfortable acceleration forces within our controlled environment. The journey will be so smooth, you could sip a coffee the whole time without spilling a single drop. Normal acceleration and deceleration of 0.20 Gs will feel similar to a train. As a comparison, flooring a typical sedan gives between 0.4-0.5 Gs and commercial airplanes see 0.3-0.5Gs depending on the plane and load.

  • Q. What happens if there's a sudden breach in the tube?

    Pods will continue to travel safely to the next portal even with a large breach. Our response to a breach would be to intentionally repressurize the tube with small valves places along the route length while engaging pod brakes to safely bringing all pods to rest before it is deemed safe to continue to the next portal. A sustained leak could impact performance (speed) but would not pose a safety issue due to vehicle and system architectural design choices. This assessment is based in solid understanding and analysis of the complex vehicle load behaviors during such an event.

  • Q. Is hyperloop sustainable?

    Without a massive leap forward, pollution from the transportation industry is expected to almost double by 2050 - well above the carbon budget. By combining an ultra-efficient electric motor, magnetic levitation, and a low-drag environment, the VHO system can reach airline speeds for 5-10x less energy (depends on route length) and can go faster than high-speed rail using less energy. In regions like the Middle East, we could power the system completely by solar panels which cover the tube. As fighting against climate change becomes an existential issue for cities across the globe, hyperloop will create a new, shared, electric mobility model for helping to permanently reform an industry with some of the world’s highest carbon emissions.

  • Q. How much energy does hyperloop use?

    We are designing Virgin Hyperloop to be more efficient than other modes of transportation. Modern jetliners use up to 10 times the energy we use per passenger-mile over the entire journey. We can cruise at 500 miles per hour for less energy (per passenger) than an electric car doing 60 miles per hour. At peak speed, the VHO system consumes approximately 75 watt hours per passenger kilometer (Wh/pax-km). To put this in perspective, the fastest conventional maglev train travels at about half our speed and consumes 33% more energy.

  • Q. Where will hyperloop get its power?

    Our system is 100% electric with zero direct emissions. We're energy-agnostic. Our system can draw power from whichever energy sources are available along the route and support a transition to a renewable energy-powered future. In regions like the Middle East, we can completely power the system with solar panels which cover the tube.

  • Q. How much noise does hyperloop make?

    It’s similar those new electric vehicles that are so quiet they need to create noise to indicate movement. With hyperloop, we eliminate sources of mechanical noise, like wheels on track, and we actually have a sound barrier inherent in our tube design

  • Q. Can hyperloop be used for cargo?

    DP World Cargospeed is a global brand for hyperloop-enabled cargo systems operated by DP World and enabled by Virgin Hyperloop technology. These systems will deliver freight at the speed of flight and closer to the cost of trucking for fast, sustainable, and efficient delivery of palletized cargo.

  • Q. What type of cargo would a hyperloop system transport?

    The focus would be on high-priority, on-demand goods – fresh food, medical supplies, electronics, and more.

  • Q. How can hyperloop help transform logistics?

    With DP World Cargospeed, deliveries can be completed in hours versus days with greater reliability and fewer delays. It will expand freight transportation capacity by connecting with existing modes of road, rail, ports, and air transport, and will provide greater connectivity with manufacturing parks, economic zones, distribution centers, and regional urban centers. This can shrink inventory lead times, help reduce finished goods inventory, and cut required warehouse space and cost by 25%. DP World Cargospeed networks can also enable just-in-time, agile manufacturing practices.

  • Q. Will the first hyperloops be passenger or cargo systems?

    The Virgin Hyperloop is unique in that it doesn’t need to be passenger-only or cargo-only. We are designing a mixed-use system that fully utilizes system capacity while maximizing economic and social benefits. However, it is possible to run cargo commercial operations while certification and regulation are still ongoing for passenger use.

  • Q. When will hyperloop systems be ready for cargo and passengers?

    We are working with the most visionary governments around the world to make sure you can ride the hyperloop in years, not decades. Our goal is to have operational systems in the late 2020s. Our ability to meet that goal will depend on how fast the regulatory and statutory processes move.

  • Q. Where will the first hyperloop get built?

    We are working with visionary governments and partners around the world to make hyperloop a reality today. To learn more about our projects around the world, visit our progress page.

  • Q. How much will hyperloop cost to build and operate?

    Capital and operating costs will range widely based on the route. We recently released a study that showed our linear costs are 60-70% that of high-speed rail projects. In addition, we expect the operational costs to be significantly lower than existing forms of transportation.

  • Q. How much will hyperloop cost to ride?

    It’s simple – if it’s not affordable, people won't use it. We are looking to build something that will expand opportunities for the masses, so they can live in one city with their family and work in another. Currently, that kind of high-speed transport is not feasible for most people. The exact ticket price will vary for each route, but a recent study showed that riding a hyperloop in Missouri could cost less than the gas needed to drive.

  • Q. How are hyperloop routes selected?

    We are in the business of serving local needs, not the other way around. Public and private support is key. In some cases, we will respond to solicited bids with partners when we feel the technology matches the project’s objectives. In other cases, we will make an unsolicited bid for a project when we see that hyperloop could offer a unique solution to market needs.

  • Q. What is the process for getting a passenger route up and running?

    While the technology is different, the process for building a hyperloop is similar to that of building a highway, railway, or any other type of linear infrastructure. The first stage is project development. This phase includes feasibility studies, and then more detailed engineering reports and environmental impact studies. Once a project is approved to move forward, a consortium is formed to finance and deliver on the project.

  • Q. How much land does hyperloop require?

    Many infrastructure projects succeed or fail based on right-of-way issues. We are designing a system that requires only about half the right-of-way as high-speed rail and can more easily adapt to existing right-of-ways. At high speeds, the VHO system has a 4.5 times tighter turn radius compared to high-speed rail and can climb grades that are 6 times steeper, reducing the disturbance at crossings. Portals will be purposely integrated into and support existing communities and landscapes. Low noise levels will expand opportunities to build hyperloops closer to the city center.

  • Q. With the focus on connecting cities, how will hyperloop support rural communities?

    Hyperloop also holds enormous promise for rural communities. Virgin Hyperloop systems can be built below or above ground, which means no one’s farm needs to be cut in half. Our system enables rural areas to retain residents, who can now have more access to urban job centers, educational opportunities, and health care facilities. Additionally, hyperloop could enable freight distribution centers to be placed in rural areas, leading to job growth and industrial clusters. After a system is built, there is the opportunity to add additional on and off-ramps, supporting a greater number of people along the route.

  • Q. How will hyperloop projects be financed?

    Transportation infrastructure has traditionally relied on extensive government funding. This is because the benefits of clean, safe, and efficient transportation are enjoyed by the entire community, not just the user buying a ticket. However, most existing mass transportation modes are unprofitable and hindered by existing infrastructure built in the past century or by legacy systems. We want to change that and are focused on public-private partnerships. By developing a new mode of transportation from scratch, we're able to leverage technological developments that have occurred in the last century, especially the IT revolution. We're able to keep maintenance costs low, energy efficiency high, and transport tens of thousands of passengers per hour. This keeps margins and accessibility high, contributing to more financially attractive returns than if the corridor was served by existing modes. These benefits aren’t just hypothetical. While this is an exceptional case due to high demand, a third-party evaluation found that our Mumbai-Pune Hyperloop Project could be funded 100% by private capital. In the U.S. we see enormous potential to attract investment from the private sector, leveraging public investments. Involving government stakeholders as well as potential private investors early in the project development process is critical.

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