As technologists we love being captivated by the potential of the technology we peddle. Whether we are influenced by money, or just purely our love of technology, we enjoy believing in the power of technology to make change so much that we are willing to ignore so many other factors. This reality, coupled with the dominance of white men in the tech sector, make for a pretty potent form of delusion around what technology will be able to do. Something you can see evident in the world of transportation, ranging from Uber to the Hyperloop–we want to believe, while also being willing to ignore so much damage that is occurring across the landscape.
Whenever I talk critically about the hyperloop, I get a number of people who want to tell me I’m wrong, and that the hyperloop represents true innovation, and Elon Musk and other technologists are heroes. One thing I ask when I get this type of push back is about how hyperloop will help address the politics that surrounds the planning, operation, and pricing of public and private transportation. Let’s say that hyperloop gets up and running in LA, Chicago, or the other places we’ve heard that it is coming. How does hyperloop address the politics around real estate involved with station stops? Or around the cost of safety and maintenance? Or around the pricing and availability of trains? How does hyperloop resist all the other illnesses that creep in around the operation of transportation systems?
Hyperloop doesn’t posses any unique characteristics beyond existing technologies. Other transit systems have underground tunnels. Other transit systems travel at high speeds. Other transit systems don’t use traditional metal rails for moving trains along. What makes hyperloop so special so that it is immune from the effects of government bureaucracy or privatization? Except the fact that it is so new, unproven, and still just part of our imagination. There is nothing being proposed that will prevent hyperloop from being delayed, or cost more than current solutions. There will be nothing that prevents ticket prices from skyrocketing as they do with Amtrak, or other solutions. There will be nothing that prevents unionization of hyperloop workers, as well as the good and the bad that unions can bring to the table. It is easy to be excited by hyperloop when you only look at the technology, and ignore the business and politics of the transportation industry.
As I write this I’m riding a high speed train from Paris to Grenoble, on a day in between the strike by France’s powerful unions. As I travel 288 km/h, something you don’t see in the United States, I’m reminded of what could be in the US if we focused on not just the technology, but also the business and politics of transportation. Somehow we’ve allowed our individually-centered mentality get the best of us and think that our isolated, traffic-jammed realities in our personally owned automobiles, or exploitative on-demand reality with Uber and Lyft is better than investing in public transportation. As we cut the budgets of transit operators, suffocate Amtrak, and exploit the on-demand economy’s drivers, the rest of the world is passing us by through finding a balance between the technology, business, and politics of transportation. I realize there is no perfect solution, or utopian vision of transportation, but if we invest in reality, I feel we can collectively move the transportation conversation forward.