Sunday

28th May 2017

Back to the Future by Hyperloop

  • Concept art of Hyperloop One, which could bring passengers from Helsinki to Stockholm in half an hour. (Photo: Hyperloop One)

When makers of the film Back to the Future II in 1989 envisaged urban transport in 2015, they thought cars would fly and skateboards would hover.

EUobserver would not be the first to point out that the film did not get everything right.

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  • Between 1899 and 1910 French artist Jean-Marc Cote created a series of postcards in which he imagined what the year 2000 would look like. (Photo: Jean-Marc Côté)

But that does not prevent us from dreaming up future scenarios.

Leaping ahead 34 years to 2050 - eight years after Marty McFly and Doc Brown’s Delorean - is potentially a very different picture of how people will move around.

Whether cars fly or not in 2050, only a limited number will run on petrol or diesel if promises are kept.

Five years ago, the European Commission said that greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector would have to be reduced by at least 60 percent by 2050, compared with levels from 1990. To do that, it said cars using convention fuels should be phased out of cities entirely.

There are some signs of movement in that direction.

Electric vehicles

Cities like Paris, Amsterdam, London, Barcelona, and Oslo have stimulated the use of electric vehicles by giving a subsidy.

And days before the Paris climate agreement was signed in December 2015, Germany, the UK, Norway and the Netherlands, signed up to an international group that promised to have only zero-emission cars sold on their territory in 2050.

“These vehicles help to improve air quality and increase low-carbon development,” the zero-emission vehicle alliance says.

For its part, the EU commission's report said the current transport system is “not sustainable”. “Since the first big oil crisis 40 years ago - despite technical progress, potential for cost-effective energy efficiency improvements and policy efforts - the transport system has not fundamentally changed.

“Looking 40 years ahead, it is clear that transport cannot develop along the same path.”

The commission said that in future, public transport must have a bigger share.

Some cities, like Tallinn, are trying to achieve that goal through offering free public transport. Wojciech Keblowski, who researches the topic at the Free University of Brussels, told EUobserver that free public transport should be seen as a social policy rather than a transport policy.

“After the shift to the use of private vehicles in the 1950s and 1960s, public transport gradually had to compete with the comfort of a car," he said.

"Authorities had to increasingly try to convince those in cars that public transport could offer similar quality. For people in lower income groups, the price of public transport is a factor. By no longer requiring tickets, you remove a stigma."

How does he see urban transport in 2050?

Keblowski thinks there will be much fewer petrol cars driving around in cities, because fossil fuels will have become more scarce and expensive. “I think you will see SUV-like type cars driven by the extremely rich, and a very congested public transport system,” Keblowski said.

The Hyperloop

A completely different mode of transport is currently being considered in Nordic countries.

It would reach speeds of up to 1,200 km/h - faster than the top speed of a Boeing 747. Its name: the Hyperloop. Its estimated development cost: €13 billion. It would reduce the journey between Helsinki and Stockholm to less than 30 minutes.

The Hyperloop, if it is built, would be a series of pods travelling through tubes via magnetic levitation. FS Links, the company developing it, says it can be used both for freight and passenger transport.

According to a KPMG study - which was commissioned by FS Links - a Hyperloop system has a “very strong case and is worthy of consideration a potentially viable alternative” to a high-speed railway line, which is also being looked at. KPMG estimated it would take between 12 to 15 years to complete.

Although the commission in its vision of 2050 did not foresee a magnetic tube, it did note the importance of high-speed rail and argued that by 2050 the majority of medium-distance passenger transport should go by rail.

Will we get there?

The commission is not very optimistic, except about its own work. In a report published in July this year it said “little progress [had been] achieved” in the past five years towards the 2050 goals.

“Despite a relative good pace on the side of the Commission in proposing new measures, it has become evident that the follow-up adoption of the proposals by the legislators as well as the implementation have been lagging behind,” the report noted.

That means cities, regions and national governments need to step up their game. It will be 2050 before you know it. And unlike Back to the Future, time travel to redo missed opportunities is not an option, at least not yet.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2016 Regions and Cities Magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.

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