Part of a four-part series related to creating more sustainable, resilient transport infrastructure. Other articles in the series include 5 Lessons The World Can Learn From Dutch Resilience, and Full-Seats & Other Secrets to a More Sustainable Transport Future.
Let’s start with disclosure: The global infrastructure firm I work for, AECOM, is involved in supporting and developing several hyperloop efforts, so it’s not a stretch to say I come at this with the belief that this is a very cool technology. But, as the “climate and disaster guy,” I wondered how this idea fits into the work we have been doing to build infrastructure that is sustainable and resilient to the effects of climate change. The short answer is “yes” to both, but not in the way I originally thought. First, I will briefly define sustainability and resilience because they are both used pretty broadly these days.
I use sustainability in the environmental sense to mean that an infrastructure system or asset is one that doesn't create more problems for the environment than it solves. It can be low carbon and does not have unintended consequences we can’t address. Resilience is a little tougher to define clearly. In the climate and natural disaster world, we speak of the ability to absorb or quickly recover from acute shocks such as severe weather or chronic stresses like sea level rise. Sustainability is about treading lightly. Resilience is about getting back up when you’re knocked down.
One thing that is clear is that now is the time to think about resilience and sustainability. Communities and companies are focusing on these issues because they realize this is not a problem that can be ignored or avoided. In its annual Global Risk Report, the World Economic Forum places climate and disaster risks in the quadrant that reflects the highest probability and greatest impact.
The good news is that cities around the world are leaning forward on resilience. As part of efforts like the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, UNISDR’s Making Cities Resilient campaign and broader city programs like C40 and the Compact of Mayors, there is a very strong focus on these issues at the municipal level. In its recently launched resilience strategy, Paris has committed to rethink how infrastructure is built and used to prepare for the challenges of the 21st Century. In New York City the recent update to their OneNYC resilience plan looks not just the core physical infrastructure but also looks at what that infrastructure does and how that affects the people in the city. And in Bangkok, the resilience strategy is based on three concepts: improving quality of life, reducing risk, and driving economic growth. They realize that these concepts are interdependent and critical to a thriving city. Across the developed and developing world, the signs are clear that we realize the need to be sustainable and resilient and great models of this are being created every day.
We often say walking and biking are the most sustainable forms of transportation. They are definitely low-emission and (even better) they are good for fitness. But I’m not sure I know anyone, except for a few crazy friends, who thinks a bicycle can replace the car or the airplane. I am writing this while sitting on a “high-speed” train from Washington, D.C. to New York City, traveling at more than 100 mph. That makes it faster than a car or bus, but slower than an airplane. This big train, Amtrak’s Acela Express, runs on electricity and it takes a lot of it to move it up and down the East Coast. As the grid gets greener each year it could, theoretically, be carbon neutral if the power generation were sustainable. My other choices for short distance, inter-city trips of under 300 miles are a car, bus, or airplane. Compared to those, based on current technology, this train is a greener choice.
But today’s high-speed trains have a physics problem called friction. The train experiences two types of friction: rolling resistance from the steel wheels on the rails, and air resistance or drag. Drag is, well, a drag, because it increases with speed and makes very high-speed trains less energy efficient. High-speed trains in France (TGV), Germany (ICE), and Japan (Shinkansen) spend a large portion of their energy overcoming this friction problem at speeds over 200 mph. Even the most streamlined shape does not put a big dent in the energy costs of air resistance. Ever wonder why planes fly at 35,000 feet? It’s because the air is much thinner and less resistant at that altitude and they need less fuel to overcome the drag.
Now we finally get to the hyperloop, which operates in tube with a low pressure environment. This means very limited drag, so you can go really fast without as much energy. It’s why we could fly astronauts to the moon at what would seem like ridiculous speeds on earth (nearly 25,000 mph) – because space is really big and is a near total vacuum with very little matter. The hyperloop won’t travel anywhere near that fast, but it could travel at speeds approaching 600 mph. So in terms of sustainability, hyperloop is like an electric car that can fly in space, but is restricted to where the tube is built.
But wait, I haven’t gotten to resilience yet. Resilience is about how we adapt to shocks and stresses so we can absorb or quickly recover from those disruptions. Hyperloop has two key resilience attributes. First, it’s new and because it’s built from scratch it can be designed to adapt to the changes we know are coming. Much of our existing transportation infrastructure is old and it’s often hard to retrofit older systems to be resilient to changes that were not known or anticipated when it was designed. The other resilient attribute of this new technology is that it provides additional capacity and another system. In a disaster, some systems will work and others will fail for reasons we can’t always predict. Disasters are often, by their very nature, unpredictable. Having more options is good for resilience. While it is possible that this system could be compromised like any other mode of transportation, more choices are better.
When I started to think about hyperloop, I assumed that there would be some key aspect of the technology that would drive sustainability and resilience but, in the case of the hyperloop, you have to look at the big picture to see the multiple factors that contribute to its resilience and compare this to the other choices available. Yes, sustainability is a function of energy sources and efficiency, but it also necessary to look at the “future-proofing” efficiency and effectiveness of the system -- how it will hold up over time and integrate into both legacy and future transportation networks.
I don’t think governments and private organizations are going to invest in a system like the hyperloop solely because of its sustainability or resilience attributes. If you can deploy a safe and cost-effective ground-based transport system that travels at airline speeds, I think it’s safe to say you will have a market. However, as cities around the word race to adopt sustainability and resilience standards, it will be a major factor in how they consider their future infrastructure investments.
Josh Sawislak is the Global Director of Resilience for the infrastructure services firm AECOM and formerly served as a senior climate official in the Obama White House.