PRINT Summer 2017


Hyperloop One test site, March 29, 2015. North Las Vegas, NV. Inset: Chicago & North Western Railroad viaduct, Boone, IA, 1995. Photo: Joe Elliott.

WHERE IS THE SIGNATURE of a city most visible? Not in its skyline, but in its infrastructure. Medieval walls, Renaissance ports, the curving sweeps of concrete expressways—the configuration of infrastructure is the force that determines a city’s form.

National identity is also displayed in these public systems. And nowhere is this truer than in the United States: The mythic American is a can-do, pragmatic innovator who tamed the wild with the help of the world’s best transport. Pathfinders on foot gave way to stagecoaches, railroads, Fords, and 747s, all heading toward our Manifest Destiny.

Or at least, that’s how it used to be. A rare point of political agreement these days is that our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. But policy solutions from both sides of the aisle tend to be far too limited in scope, defined by hand-wringing over how to patch up the existing, dilapidated structures of our cities—repairing city buses, commuter trains, and highways—rather than actually building new systems. There’s little recognition that we need new forms of transport, and that building new infrastructure is not the same as modernizing old infrastructure. The praise heaped on Asia’s new airports is typical. It’s really just applause for larger volumes, shinier aesthetics, and better shopping; on a practical level, those airports are LaGuardia with monstrous face-lifts. Redos of our current system would produce nothing more than inadequate solutions to the wrong problems, undertaken on an insufficient scale.

The president’s recent cries for improved infrastructure are based on nostalgia parading as nationalism. He claims that corporatizing our current infrastructure will make America great again. His recent suggestion that we privatize our dams and airports, for example, does not make sense for multiple reasons, including the simple fact that the federal government is still the entity that is best situated to reliably fund and fix the backbone that did make us great. Whether or not his administration will act on its out-of-date, misguided beliefs is still an open question.

For its part, the Obama administration proposed high-speed trains that were equally misguided, if in a different way. Such rail networks would be appropriate only to create the kind of compact European-style cities that are increasingly at odds with the nature of growth in the US. The planning approaches of both of these administrations face backward, not forward.

Another problem with these outdated methodologies is that they reinforce entrenched assumptions about the politics of infrastructure. There’s a deeply embedded conviction that federal transportation funding disproportionately favors the biggest metros and the bluest voters, reinforcing the urban/rural opposition that has increasingly become a defining feature of US politics. But that belief is about to be destabilized. We’re entering an era in which the least dense communities are poised to gain the most, and in which radical new transportation technologies may change not just how we move but how we live, altering the very makeup of our communities themselves.For an example, look at the Hyperloop (now being developed by a private company called Hyperloop One), an idea of SpaceX founder Elon Musk. It could conceivably be instituted during the coming decade; portions have already been tested in Nevada. According to the company’s vision, two massive tubes would extend between urban hubs, let’s say Los Angeles and San Francisco, either terrestrially or underground. Pods carrying passengers would travel through the tubes at more than six hundred miles per hour (compared to about two hundred and twenty miles per hour for the bullet train currently proposed for California), propelled by nearly frictionless magnetic accelerators along the length of the tube. Estimates put the cost at under $10 billion, compared to the $64 billion estimate for the conventional high-speed rail.

America’s social and demographic shifts make the adaptation of new infrastructure technology urgent. Almost 70 percent of Americans already live in suburbs. During the next fifty years the population of suburbia is projected to double. And the suburbia of the future will be physically and culturally different than the one we know today. As our biggest cities have become increasingly unaffordable, the share of minorities in suburbs has grown appreciably. Millennials also are showing a strong preference—despite hype to the contrary—for suburbs. In a reversal of a long-term trend, it is people leaving the cities, rather than those abandoning the rural countryside, who are driving the settlement of these new communities. Naturally, all of these urbanites will bring their values with them.

Rural voters strongly supported Trump, as did those from the so-called exurbs that bound the outer rings of suburbs surrounding our cities.But as these areas grow more metropolitan—and cosmopolitan—due to the significant expansion of suburban communities, they are also likely to be the first to benefit from the early implementation of new infrastructure, because the Hyperloop and other new transportation models, such as autonomous cars, will be most easily created and adapted for new suburbs that have not yet been built. Transportation policy and funding will no longer be stymied by the notion that blue urbanites and urban commuters would be its primary recipients.

The power of this genuinely disruptive infrastructure will be felt in our political discourse, in the physical form of our communities, and in our culture. It heralds the start of an age when the geographic divisions between red and blue populations will be breached. The hinterlands will see new and different population surges. And our cities, too, will be transformed. Indeed, the real power of infrastructure is that it has the capability to bridge not only geographic divides, but social ones as well.

Alan M. Berger is the Norman B. and Muriel Leventhal Professor of Advanced Urbanism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is Director of P-Rex Lab and Codirector of the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism. His Forthcoming Anthology Infinite Suburbia (Princeton Architectural Press) examines the emerging global suburban condition.