Hyperloop wants to connect people to opportunity, but city leaders are asking who benefits the most

Over half of the world’s population now live in urban centers, and that percentage is expected to increase dramatically over the next decade. In order to accommodate this massive influx, cities will have to expand and upgrade existing infrastructure. But as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on state and local budgets, those preparations have largely been placed on the back burner. That’s where Josh Giegel, cofounder and chief technology officer at Virgin Hyperloop, said the company can step in. 

On Nov. 8, six years after the company’s founding, Giegel became the first person to ride a complete Hyperloop system, a high-speed vacuum train that purports to move as quickly as an airplane at a fraction of the cost—and with less environmental impact. 

At the current rate of expansion, Giegel said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech virtual conference, 700,000 new miles of road will need to be built every year. While cities like Los Angeles, where Hyperloop is based, are “car cities” they’re also cities “constrained by cars.” Hyperloop wants to help solve that problem. 

Giegel was joined by Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, who recognized the growing problem of an increasing population and limited budgeting. “Our battle is making the case that investment in city infrastructure is just as much the bread and butter of city government as keeping traffic lights on,” she said. But, she added, her mission is to “dismantle a legacy of overtly racist decisions that created the infrastructure of our cities.”

Highways were placed in the middle of neighborhoods, and areas that are underserved by public transport are typically majority minority, she explained. “When we evaluate any kind of new technology in our city, my questions are what kind of problem we’re solving and who we’re solving it for,” she explained. “We want to make transportation seamless and have it connect people to opportunity. Car sharing, public transit, and anything that makes paying for those things easier are the tech solutions we’re interested in.” Hyperloop, she said, was something the city is interested in, but it doesn’t work to solve the fundamental problem of serving the underserved in the city. 

“We’re open to all tech but also rigorous in asking, Is this a solution for folks who already have a lot of options, or is this something that gets to the root causes of these issues? High-speed rail could be encouraging, but I’m not convinced that Hyperloop is going to address some of those issues we’re trying so desperately to solve,” said Reynolds. It’s all about balance, she added. 

Hyperloop is not a “last mile solution” and would be more focused on connecting large cities that are miles away, said Giegel. Connecting areas in the Midwest, for example, could turn Kansas City into a global powerhouse and attract residents away from other already overcrowded cities.

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