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Hyperloop in Florida? Look into transportation's far-flung future

A Hyperloop transportation system as envisioned by Hyperloop Transportation Technologies co-founder and CEO Dirk Ahlborn. He talked about his company's plans to a crowd of entrepreneurs and business leaders at this week's Synapse Innovation Summit at Amalie Arena. [Hyperloop Transportation Technologies]
Published Mar. 30, 2018

TAMPA — Imagine being able to move at the speed of sound.

This far-flung idea could be reality in as little as three years, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies co-founder and CEO Dirk Ahlborn told a crowd of entrepreneurs and business leaders at this week's Synapse Innovation Summit at Amalie Arena.

TAMPA BAY TIMES REPORT: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why. (Feb. 16, 2017)

Ahlborn, whose company is building low-pressured capsules designed to zip through tubes at about 700 mph, was one of several speakers who addressed the future of transportation during Thursday's session. They talked about innovative concepts that could change everything from parking to the way cities are designed to the cost of housing.

Some of those changes, Ahlborn said, are just a few years away.

"When I started five years ago, you wouldn't believe how many people said this isn't going to work," he said. "I don't get the questions any more 'Does this work?' Now it's just the question, 'When? When is this finally done?'"

The Hyperloop concept was developed by Elon Musk, who open-sourced the design so that companies like Ahlborn's could actually create the systems.

While some consider Hyperloop an outlandish concept — the idea of putting 40 people in a tube and shooting them off from Orlando to Miami in 25 minutes can be hard to grasp — other ideas like Uber's Pool service are aimed at making smaller changes to transportation networks that could have far-reaching effects.

Uber Southeast General Manager Kasra Moshkani talked about Uber Pool, which combines multiple Uber requests into one carpool trip.

By choosing the pool option, riders receive a discount for sharing the car with someone else taking a similar trip. The service has been operating in major cities across the United States and came to Miami in 2015.

"We wondered, would people carpool for a discount?" Moshkani said. "The answer to the question is a resounding yes. It's price and convenience that matters most to people."

Moshkani said the company plans to bring the service to Tampa Bay in the future. However, he wouldn't indicate when exactly that could happen. That isn't unusual for the often tight-lipped company, which has faced several controversies in recent years and saw CEO Travis Kalanick depart in 2017.

Tampa Bay's transit future: Light rail's out. Rapid buses are in. (Jan. 11, 2018)

Tampa Bay Transit: How rapid buses left light rail in the dust (Jan. 12, 2018)

Learn how bus rapid transit (and rail) could work in Tampa Bay (Jan. 19, 2018)

What could BRT look like in Tampa Bay? Here are three examples (March 19, 2018)

Tampa Bay's new transit goal: Dedicated BRT lanes from St. Pete to USF Tampa (March 28, 2018)

The implications of ridesharing, whether as an individual, as part of a carpool, or in driverless cars, go beyond the cost and environmental impacts, Moshkani said.

The more people depend on ridesharing and transit, the less need there is to own a car. The fewer cars people own, the fewer parking spots a city needs. In some cities, parking accounts for as much as a fifth of the total land use.

Thus, Moshkani said, ridesharing could transform what cities will look like and how people will live in them.

"The space used for parking lots is space that can not used for parks, schools, affordable housing, bike lanes," he said. "Today in most cities, building more parking is uselessly encouraged, regardless of whether it's needed. That is the insanity of how we design our cities today."

While Uber Pool seems headed for the Tampa Bay region at some point, it's unclear when or if Florida will ever see technologies like Hyperloop come online.

Ahlborn's company is currently in the process of building its first passenger capsule, which should be completed in July or August. He expects to announce the location of the first commercial track in the next six months. The United Arab Emirates is a leading contender, he said.

"And then it's going to take approximately three years before you and me — if you sign a waiver — can use the Hyperloop," Ahlborn said.

A track between Orlando and Miami has been discussed. Though it would depend on the exact route, Ahlborn estimated a trip like that would take about 25 minutes.

While some versions of the Hyperloop concept use underground in tunnels, others call for systems to be built above ground or at ground-level. Ahlborn's company favors those later forms.

He envisions building pylon-supported tubes that would contain pressurized capsules about 13 feet in diameter and hold anywhere from 28 to 40 people. Building above ground would also allow the technology to rely more on solar power, Ahlborn said, making it especially suited for Florida.

Such a development could dramatically change where and how people choose to live in the future.

"You could live here and work in Miami, or the other way around, whatever you prefer," Ahlborn said. "Or you could build satellite cities 100 or 200 miles away, connect them with a Hyperloop, and be in the city center in 10 minutes."

However, regulation and land use in the U.S. are much more complicated than in other parts of the world. Ahlborn said that means it could take much longer for a technology such as Hyperloop to take hold in this country.

But it is coming to the U.S. The company announced last month it is conducting a feasibility study for a Hyperloop connecting Cleveland and Chicago. Ahlborn estimates the nearly 350 mile trip would take 30 minutes.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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