Updated: Oct 10, 2020
“All roads lead to Rome,” is a well-known metaphor used to describe the renowned hub-and-spoke road system that connected the capitol city of Rome and allowed its citizens to rule the ancient world. Throughout history, roads and trails played a significant role in building new cities, communities, and careers. The historic routes such as the Amber Road, Incense Road, Silk Road, Tea Horse Road and Trans-Saharan Route connected the north and south and east and west; subsequently influencing our culture, economy, politics, and social environments globally. In North America, the Natchez Trace and the Red River Trails paved a way for explorers, traders, and early settlers who would eventually shape the future of America. We learn from this rich history that transportation and travel play a significant role in human life and how we interact with the world. Reflecting on the past is important for understanding the future of travel and how it will impact us in the post-COVID world. This is especially important as we discover new innovations in travel, such as the Hyperloop, pods carrying people and cargo that can travel more than 600 miles per hour in a vacuum tube using low-pressure magnetic levitation.
Virgin Hyperloop now has selected West Virginia as the home for a $500 million certification center and also to test track for its high-speed transportation system. This idea came about in 2013 when Shervin Pishevar and Elon Musk shared this idea with the public and published a white paper on the Hyperloop Alpha. Consequently, Hyperloop Technologies Inc. was founded in a garage in Los Angeles, like most top tech giants in 2014, and blossomed with the introduction of the Hyperloop One with a series B investment round in 2016. Since its partnership with Virgin in 2017, new funding enabled the company to achieve speeds of 240 miles per hour, with a potential of more than 600 miles per hour transit. To put this in perspective, travel in the fully electric Hyperloop between Los Angeles and San Francisco takes 43 mins, New York City to Washington D.C. takes 27 mins, and New York City to Los Angeles takes only 4 hours 28 mins. A 47-hour coast-to-coast drive from New York City to Los Angeles would take just over 4 hours, surpassing a plane trip that averages close to 8 hours, and other travel options such as train (about 18 hours) and bus (24 hours). Apart from the states in the U.S., European countries, India, and United Arab Emirates have partnered with Hyperloop One and are setting up projects in some of their major metropolitan areas.
Photo credit: Virgin Hyperloop Certification Center in West Virginia
In the U.S., historic trails such as the California and Oregon trails played a major role in development of the nation, as well as later iterations, such as “The Mother Road,” Route 66, the 2448-mile road that shaped our migration and tourism from the 1920s to the late 1970s. The new interstate system that began in the Eisenhower administration gave birth to our downtowns, small towns, suburbs, and business outcroppings lining the freeway exits although that change brought with it is some upheaval. According to Milowski (2018), there is no question that “Route 66 built communities, but the interstate system destroyed them again.” In fact, Gallamore (2014) noted that it was the Interstate Highway System and commercial aviation, alongside overregulation in the 50s and 60s, that shattered the passenger and freight rail transportation industry. On the other hand, the interstate system gave rise to businesses such as shipping, fast-food restaurants, and economy or limited service hotels. It reshaped American culture and how people live and travel. The interstate system created a lasting and significant positive impact on cities, communities, and careers in the U.S, but at the same time “destroyed” some of the small towns and businesses. Is it possible that what the interstate system did to “The Mother Road” and to rail transportation Hyperloop can do to the Interstate system?
According to U.S. Travel. org (pre-covid), total domestic and international inbound traveler spending generated $2.6 trillion in economic impact, supporting 15.8 million jobs. Regarding travel, 80% of domestic trips are for leisure purposes including visiting relatives, shopping, visiting friends, fine dining, and rural sightseeing. The remaining 20% of domestic travel was business travel. A trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the Hyperloop pod can accommodate 28 passengers, with pods departing every 30 seconds in a two-tube structure that could easily transport 15 million people per year. A 43-minute stress-free commute between Los Angeles and San Francisco might encourage business and leisure travelers to go on a daytrip instead of an overnight stay, while at the same time inducing more people to travel on business, visit relatives and friends, or go shopping more frequently due to the ease of travel.
When traveling coast to coast from Los Angeles (LA) to New York City (NYC), business and leisure travelers would now rather stay overnight instead of lingering in one location for two-three days, but at the same time, they want to travel more frequently when possible. LA natives might want to visit NYC to experience winter snows, shopping, and Times Square on a New Year’s Eve. Meanwhile, NYC residents going to LA might want to see Universal Studios Hollywood, experience dining at the Santa Monica Pier, and encounter bohemian style at Venice Beach. The downside of this is that the Hyperloop may negatively impact the hotel and restaurant industry as travel will be more calculated and purposeful than ever before. On the contrary, Hyperloop may positively impact the industry as more people would travel frequently to new places due to the ease of travel.
Photo credit: Virgin Hyperloop Certification Center in West Virginia
From a business standpoint, there will be an emergence of creativity and innovation in products and services, and for the customer, there will be more organic experiences that are truly personalized and customized, leading to lasting memorable moments. Like the interstate system, people might prefer to live close to Hyperloop capsules or stations for easy access to travel. For existing businesses across interstate system, there will be a need to revitalize their areas to attract more travelers and there will be a need to focus on local travelers as well. While life in Hyperloop will have a significant impact on the airline and auto industry, most travelers will still prefer air travel for international destinations and using cars for convenience and flexibility in daily life. Hyperloop travel will eliminate several jobs in industries such as hotels, rental car businesses, restaurants, and the domestic airline industry, but will add a whole new sector of jobs that would create these personalize experiences to travelers, creative ways of organizing business and leisure events, and organic itineraries that engages travelers to the destinations.
As of now, there are less than 10 key players worldwide in the Hyperloop business. This new industry is currently facing major concerns about available public and private land, thermal expansion, and atmospheric pressure, apart from traveler adoption of the new energy-efficient travel platform when it is introduced for the mainstream consumer. It is expected that Hyperloops will be here by 2030, and the new transportation concept might change the way we live and travel. Subsequently, the “Loop of Life” in Hyperloop will both positively and negatively impact cities, communities, and careers, but will make travel in the U.S. and across the globe more stress-free and purposeful. For West Virginia, bringing Hyperloop certification center and test track will have a paradigm shift in the perceptions of how people in the U.S. perceive the State and eventually would attract more travelers to the testing center as tourism is emerging as a vital economic driver for the state. For West Virginia and West Virginia University, this testing center will be a feather in the cap as a R1 highest research doctoral universities in the country and how the university faculty and research would pay a significant role in the hyperloop of life, future of travel in the post-COVID world.