Response to Comments by Francis Reynolds to my Critique of the Concept of a National Dualmode Transportation System like HiLoMag


John B. Hopkins

Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, Cambridge, MA

June, 2000

No hard feelings. It is clear that we have such different perspectives on the role and nature of transportation, and how our society works, that our conclusions are bound to be quite different. But I really think you need to address in detail the problem of defining a plausible implementation path, drawing a lesson from the myriad and growing difficulties faced by conventional technologies, which typically require much less change. Consider all of the entities (governments, companies, individuals) which have to achieve consensus on routes, financing, construction impacts, land use, etc., and the time span to reach a new equilibrium.

Do some financial calculations that consider realistic timeframes and discount rates, income generation, and allow for the virtually inevitable cost growth in infrastructure projects. Eschew optimism. Draw in skeptical economists, scowling accountants, political scientists. The difficulties and multi-decade schedules that characterize present-day transportation infrastructure projects do not arise from their alleged obsolete character, but from our complex society, comprised of people with a very wide range of values and (transportation) needs,and--very often--the failure of even the best technologies to deliver a product at a cost that will quite meet their perceived value to users. (And don't forget the perversity of the world. Think more about Murphy's Law than Moore's.)

If you're simply waiting until people see the light, I think it will be a long wait. The pain of a commuter on a congested highway, or in a fogged in airport, does not necessarily cause him to assume that a new technology will solve the problem, and to demand that technology. Indeed, of whom does he demand it? Even with a popular clamor, do you really think it would be that easy to achieve unanimity as to the "best" technical solution, among the many competitors across the spectrum? Or even as to what we mean by "best"? But I don't want to get wound up. It has been interesting to be engaged in this discussion, but it is your quest, not mine, and it is hard not to see it as quixotic. I'm afraid I'll have to bow out and go back to work.

PS: My dictionary defines "obsolete" as "No longer in use or in longer used or useful". Perhaps that's a bit strong as a descriptor of the entire transportation system.

In a second response, Dr. Hopkins writes:

I was surprised and touched by your your last message.  The energy and belief that a true innovator/inventor must bring to his/her work usually precludes the receptivity to alternative views of reality that you have shown. 
I have never considered myself a pessimist - rather, a realist.  But that does not mean nothing but gloom and defeatism.  Indeed, I think there's a reasonable possibility that our transportation system will manage to continue to meet our needs reasonably well.  (The challenges of the future, which I see as very large, are predominantly in other spheres.)  First, I do not see the present system as all that defective. 

I would take more of an economist's view:  we have not figured out a rational way to ration a limited commodity (system capacity).  Most commodities are rationed by price, but in transportation that role is usually played by pain-typically congestion.   But incremental advances do occur, as do societal adjustments.  Patterns of urban development ultimately respond in some fashion to congestion.  As energy constraints come to pinch more and more, economics will drive other changes.  It will not be pretty, and certainly not "optimum"  (what ever is?) but  the incremental improvements that have long characterized transportation, very dramatically in the last two centuries, are likely to continue.  The inventors, the engineers, and even the public sector and industry leaders and worker-bees can achieve more than you might think. 

Vehicles with much more environmentally benign propulsion systems, and safety-oriented operator-awareness technologies will come into use, and will represent significant improvements.  Some measure of high-speed rail will gradually spread-not replacing a lot of air travel in most cases, but helping significantly at the margin.   Some further improvement is undoubtedly in the cards for air travel, particularly in air traffic control and noise characteristics, as well as in safety.  In short, there may be other solutions in addition to HiLoMag.
 Francis, please don't simply switch from optimism to pessimism.  Instead, try building your optimism more on the ability of our remarkable species-including our technical community-to adapt, to learn, eventually to muddle through.  Nothing else in the real world is tidy, or works as well as it should, or is free of obvious defects-don't think that we are doomed just
because transportation, and government, and public wisdom aren't perfect.  Don't characterize the world in terms of the success of your beloved HiLoMag.

 Best regards - I've enjoyed our brief discussions.


Last modified : June 06, 2000