Everyone who reads Columbus Underground must be aware that Columbus—or, rather the Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh “Midwest Hyperloop Project”— was one of 10 winners of Hyperloop One’s Global Challenge. Hyperloop, you’ll recall, is Elon Musk’s vision for a network of “vacuum tube trains:” trains that are sealed in a tube such that air and wind resistance are eliminated, meaning that, with very little power, the train can move along at very high speeds. If this vision is realized, a trip from Chicago to Columbus might take 30 minutes or so, a trip from Columbus to Pittsburgh only 20. The revolution in transportation—in the movement of people and freight—is obvious to contemplate. But the social and cultural consequences are no less important to consider.
Airline travel would surely be reduced were a system of hyperloops established across the country. If a trip to Chicago takes half the time, an airline flight now looks less inviting as a mode of travel. Many domestic airlines would ground their flights in such an environment, although international flights would more than likely remain the preferred method of international travel (unless hyperloops can be placed below—or above?—the oceans, and I’ve yet to see anyone proposing this.)
Depending on the scope of hyperloops across the country, freight will also be transported in this fashion, which would mean that the volume of trucking would similarly be reduced. Indeed, I assume that the transportation of freight would occur before that of people—there are still concerns about the experience of traveling by hyperloop and whether it will be comfortable enough. Inanimate objects would have little concern for passenger comfort.
Amazon would most certainly be interested in such high speed freight service, meaning that customer orders could be filled more quickly. Amazon fulfillment centers will likely be situated along hyperloop routes. This all assumes, of course, a robust network of hyperloops across the country, not only a Midwest corridor.
A half hour trip to Chicago would remake our cities. Currently, my commute from the suburbs to campus is about a half an hour each morning. If I could reach Chicago in 30 minutes, I might consider taking a job in Chicago but continue to live in Columbus. (And vice versa: I might live in Chicago and commute each day to Columbus).
I can recall one time—only one time—I awoke early one morning, took the first flight out of John Glenn International to Chicago, conducted my business, then hopped onto an afternoon flight at O’Hare to return to Columbus in time for dinner. I would not want to do that on a daily basis (I spent more time in airports that day than actually on a plane), but I could see some people who would easily and cheerfully take up to an hour one way to commute each day to Chicago and back. Columbus would become, in effect, a suburb of Chicago.
In the same way that the automobile transformed American cities and the residential patterns of suburbia, hyperloop might similarly refashion cities. As four-lane highways radiated out of the mid-20th Century city, cities like Columbus and Pittsburg might be similarly extended outward along a network of hyperloop trains. The distance between “where I work” and “where I live” might now be extended across several hundred miles.
We should be clear that hyperloop commuters will, at least in the early stages, be members of the economic elite. There is no consensus yet as to the cost of a hyperloop trip, but it seems unlikely that the cost would be something like the $2 it costs me to ride COTA. Even if a hyperloop trip to Chicago is less than the cost of flying there, which it most likely would be, a round trip cost of even $40 per day would mean that hyperloop-commuting would only be possible for a relative few.
Hyperloop would not address transportation around the city, of course, as in how I would get my kid to school or how I would get to the grocery. That is, American cities like Columbus will remain automobile-centric unless and until we decide to redesign our cities around light rail or bicycles or some other alternative form of transportation. A hyperloop from Clintonville to Westerville would, of course, be ridiculously impractical.
But when the Midwest Hyperloop Project is completed, many Midwesterners will quickly find Columbus to be an easily accessible place to live and work.
David Staley is interim director of the Humanities Institute and a professor of history at The Ohio State University. He is president of Columbus Futurists and host of CreativeMornings Columbus. The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday October 19 at 6:30 p.m. at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.) The topic will be “Hyperloop and its Impact on Central Ohio.”