Hyperloop: Will infrastructures of today be the border posts of tomorrow?

Daniel Bonin‘s fourth post in our Emerging Fellows program concerns infrastructure for emerging technology such as the Hyperloop. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members. 

According to dictionaries, borders are “a line separating two countries, administrative divisions, or other areas.” They separate areas with different laws and norms. Borders tend to follow natural features and have been the result of war and negotiation in the past. Considering this logic, what are the implications of high-speed transportation infrastructures like the Hyperloop, a vacuum-based transport system that is 2-3 times faster than today’s fastest trains? Could it be that they create quasi-borders within countries that follow the logic of inclusion and exclusion based on speed and accessibility?

Cities and their suburbs are growing in terms of population, economic, political and social power. They might have the power and the critical mass to make costly high-speed transportation systems viable. But on the other side, rural areas and structurally weak urban areas will struggle to keep up with that pace. They will suffer from tight budgets and fail to attract investors due to a lower population density and their demographic challenges of depopulation and aging. Establishing an interstation there is also rather unattractive. If not a network of entitled cities, who would manage to create a high-speed transportation link like a Hyperloop?

A new common identity of interconnected mega corridors, a connection of two or more cities via a Hyperloop link, would emerge as resources, people, commuters and ultimately ideas, values, and norms wander back and forth and merge faster than ever before. There is another side to consider: disparities within countries are reinforced as excluded areas are at the risk of transport disadvantage. Disadvantage stems from a lack of such a system or inaccessibility of a system in reasonable time. It results in the inaccessibility of excluded areas to people, goods, services, networks and decision making. Outsider areas will lose out in the competition for factors like inhabitants, labor supply, enterprise locations, tourists and political influence. In addition, borders are created within cities that have a Hyperloop. Neighborhoods in close proximity to stations will experience gentrification and repurposing of residential areas for commercial activities. Even negative externalities are created for those excluded but traversed by the infrastructures, like in the U.S. when major roads were routed through neighborhoods of minorities. Thus, transport infrastructures threaten to exclude outsiders and draw borderlines within countries.

The question then becomes what is the role of outsider areas, or put differently, what are the limits of the borderlines? Apart from international connections, a Hyperloop could bridge vast distances within large countries like the U.S., India or even China, where the state-owned Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation dreams to combine vacuum and magnetic levitation. However, the impact is at least as decisive in smaller countries like Germany, Japan or the UAE, where nation-wide mega corridors in commuting distance could emerge. To get an understanding of the limits of the borderlines, there is the over 20-year-old idea of Marchetti’s constant, stating that the time budget people give to commuting is on average one hour per day independent of the distance traveled. Autonomous vehicles and ubiquitous internet, enable superior feeder services and change our perception of what it means to spent time bridging the first and last mile to stations in cities plagued by congestion. Given superior feeding services, we might be well willing to increase our travel time budget. Today, people commute between Berlin and its outskirts, tomorrow they may commute with high speed between Germany’s two most populous cities: Berlin and Hamburg. The travel time budget of at least 60 minutes becomes the borderline. Beyond that line, outsider areas could be considered remote and exposed to transportation disadvantage. This implies a three-tier hierarchy: Hyperloop cities, areas with sufficient accessibility and outsiders beyond the border.

Yet the disparities are not inevitable. The central question is where should a high-speed station be based, within a city center or its suburban belt? How can outsider areas ensure accessibility to stations? Can outsider areas make traveling less desirable and necessary, especially aging areas whose residents might have a lower mobility demand? If one were to consider politics: could a Hyperloop counteract populism and deglobalization or could initiatives like the One Road One Belt be exploited to play hardball in a more multipolar world?

© Daniel Bonin 2018