Walter Isaacson: It’s late 1860s and traffic in New York City is already a nightmare. Decades before the introduction of the automobile, Broadway, which runs the length of Manhattan, is clogged with horses, peddlers, and just about anybody with somewhere to be. Beneath the streets, an odd and secret project is underway. An American inventor, named Alfred Ely Beach has been granted permission from the city authorities to build a pair of underground postal tubes beneath the bustling thoroughfare. Pneumatic tubes, as their called, are a fairly recent invention using the power of compressed air to speedily move capsules containing papers and other small objects around crowded 19th century downtowns. But Beach hasn’t told the authorities the real story.
What he’s planning to build is something much bigger than a mail tube. It’s a project that was already shot down by the city’s biggest political influencer, Tammany Hall power broker, William “Boss” Tweed. With a permit for postal tubes in hand, Beach and his crew worked furiously and in secrecy for 58 days, excavating under one of the cities busiest arteries.
In 1870, he unveils his clandestine project, The Beach Pneumatic Transit System, the city’s first underground transit line, powered by the same vacuum force that would have driven his fictional mail tubes. It runs underneath Broadway from Warren to Murray street, a distance of only 312 feet. But this proof of concept becomes a small sensation, with over 400,000 riders trying out the novel form of transportation in its first year. As it doesn’t really go anywhere, riders simply pay their 25 cents to take the system’s single, lavishly-decorated car one way and then promptly hop back on and go back.
The Beach Pneumatic Transit line beat the New York City Subway, which opened in 1904, by almost 35 years. But a financial downturn in the 1870s meant that Beach’s dream of a line that would connect the city would never come to pass, and it was eventually demolished in 1873. A few decades later, a more conventional, electrified system would be built, and the New York Subway would become one of the most celebrated transit systems in the world. But Beach’s dream of pneumatic mass transit never really died. In fact, it’s only been slumbering. A new wave of mass transit may be just around the corner, and while it’s innovative and potentially world-changing, it’s got a lot in common with that little 300 and foot line of the past.
I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.
Speaker 1: Please mind the gap between the train and platform.
Speaker 2: Time to go. Many people are going with us.
Speaker 3: Street cars.
Speaker 2: We must first buy a ticket.
Speaker 3: Trolley coaches.
Speaker 2: Inside, the passengers are finding their seats.
Speaker 3: The L Train.
Speaker 2: To transport workers to their jobs.
Speaker 3: Subway.
Speaker 2: Largely responsible for the rise of modern civilization.
Walter Isaacson: As our planet gets ever more crowded and urbanized, the problem of how to move city dwellers from one place to another has become more and more pressing, but crowded cities and harried commuters aren’t new. They’re not even unique to the automotive era. During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, an enterprising French doctor, named Stanislas Baudry, spotted an opportunity. He noted that while horse-drawn carriages were a convenient way to get around, there was a small drawback of you having to be wealthy enough to actually own one, and there were plenty of workers with places to go.
So in 1826, he launched a horse-drawn bus service for the locals in the city of Nantes. It was a huge success. He called it the Omnibus, and within a year, the idea had reached Paris, London, and New York City.
Anastasia: It is basically a coach that is drawn by two horses.
Walter Isaacson: Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris is a professor of urban planning at UCLA.
Anastasia: It carries about 12 to 20 people, and it always goes along fixed routes. There were a lot of problems. Usually, it gets pretty crowded. The seating were very primitive benches. Sometimes, in very hot days, there is not enough ventilation in the summer. In the winter, it gets pretty cold. Also, it runs only on certain streets that promise the most riders. The other problem was that it was extremely expensive. At that time, a general wage of an average worker was about one dollar a day, and the cost for a ride was about 12 cents or 12 and a half cents, so you can imagine that only the quite wealthy could afford the fares. Nevertheless, it is the first form of public transit.
Walter Isaacson: The Industrial Revolution introduced mass-produced steel. In the 1860s, the omnibus carriages were put on fixed rails, where they could carry more people and go faster with fewer horses. By 1870, New Yorkers had racked up 100 million trips a year in the horse-drawn streetcars. Success, however, had a rather unpleasant side effect. The city was now home to 150,000 horses, each generating 22 pounds of manure a day.
Salvation from the pungent air arrived in the form of one of America’s great inventors, Frank J. Sprague. An associate of Thomas Edison’s, Sprague’s own inventions would be responsible for a great deal of the electrification of America, from streetcar wires to electrically-powered elevators. His new electric motor was capable of operating at a constant speed for long stretches of time, and pulling heavy loads. Finally, in 1888 in Richmond, Virginia, he used it to replace the stenchy horsepower that moved the trolley cars.
Anastasia: So it’s the first time that electricity comes into the rescue of mass transit. Then, the only problem that remains sometimes is that these electric trolleys have to mix with the rest of the traffic that occurs in downtown because there’s still horses and there’s still a number of other vehicles and people on the streets. Some cities start elevating these electric railways, and these are called the Ls, that you see. For example, Chicago, still has an L. In order to avoid the traffic, cities either go upwards and develop the Ls or start thinking of how to go underground.
Walter Isaacson: That’s exactly what was happening across the Atlantic in Europe. To avoid the chaos of the streets, they tunneled under them. In the mid-1860s, the various underground railways that would eventually make up the London Underground were being built. While they connected the sprawling imperial city, the tunnels were described as having a hell-like quality by riders, as the trains were powered by steam engines with very little ventilation. In fact, the air quality in the confined tunnels were so poor that the conductors of the Metropolitan Railway were encouraged to grow beards in the optimistic hope that those whiskers would act as a filter for the more noxious elements in the air. It would be another 45 years before the tube went electric.
There was another option that avoided the stinking, toxic smoke of the tunnels, build a mass transit system in the sky. In the late 19th century, the powers that be in Wuppertal, a burgeoning, industrial town in Northeast Germany were dealing with a now familiar issue, albeit with an unusual twist.
Benjamin S.: That city fathers – kind of the benevolent capitalist class, as it were … were trying to come up with some new transportation solutions in this city that was having a lot of traffic problems.
Walter Isaacson: Benjamin Schneider is a writer covering urbanism, technology, and culture.
Benjamin S.: Secondly, they wanted to figure out how to get people to the new zoo that this wealthy merchant class had just built, and which was proving to be a big success.
Walter Isaacson: With traffic jams spoiling townspeople’s jaunts to see the Wuppertal Zoo’s prized family of bears, the city elders reached for an idea that had been proposed to them back in the 1820s. A horse-driven rail line that would be suspended over the region’s Wupper River. Strikingly, the cars would actually hang from the rails rather than travel on top of them. At first, locals were wary of this radical new idea.
Benjamin S.: People were kind of freaked out by the idea of moving at fairly high speeds above ground, and seeing the world go by so fast. But for the most part, it was adopted really quickly, and it has seen really high ridership for its entire history.
Walter Isaacson: The Wuppertal Suspension Railway, or Schwebebahn as it’s called, still serves the region … although it’s currently under maintenance, it is expected to be up and running later this year. It’s a visually distinctive piece of technology, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s nearly 120 years old. The Schwebebahn’s impact on the history and culture of the region is indisputable.
Benjamin S.: When the Schwebebahn was built, it connected two cities: the cities of Elberfeld and Barmen. They were right next to each other in this little valley, the Wupper River valley. Because of it, by the late 1920s, the city leaders realized it didn’t even make sense to have two separate cities. So they merged them into the city that we now call Wuppertal.
Walter Isaacson: Although the Schwebebahn thrived, hanging trains never really caught on around the world. The future clearly belonged to the underground.
Back in North America … Boston, in 1897, would become the first North American city to move its electric streetcar below ground. Other major cities around the country were soon to follow. But the largest impediment to the wholesale adoption of mass transit was just around the corner.
By the 1920s, Henry Ford’s Model T put car ownership within the grasp of the average American family. The love affair with the automobile had begun. A hundred years later, it’s still going strong. So much so, that getting commuters out of their cars and onto public transit is an uphill battle. Despite the fact that cities spend billions of dollars on sleek new monorails, subways, and light rail transit, ridership is down in 31 of the 35 largest metro areas in the country.
But in those few cities that are gaining riders, the common denominator might surprise you. They focused on improving the oldest and least sophisticated mode of transportation: the city bus.
Andrew Glass H.: Buses get a bad rap, and partly it’s because too many transit systems across the country have just let their bus systems lagger in a lot of ways.
Walter Isaacson: Andrew Glass Hastings is a former Director of Transit and Mobility for Seattle, where public transit actually gained 5,000,000 riders between 2016 and 2017. He says the key was making life easier for bus riders by creating dedicated bus lanes and improving service.
Take for example what happened on Westlake Avenue: one of the main arteries leading to the Seattle headquarters of Amazon.
Andrew Glass H.: Westlake Avenue was your traditional four travel lanes and parking on either side. Transit through there where we actually run a streetcar, the congestion was terrible. Bus reliability was terrible, the streetcar reliability was constantly getting stuck in traffic. We thought of the idea of, “What if we create transit lanes?” There was a lot of concerns, even in the local media. The Seattle Times, was critical, saying that we were continuing the war on cars and trying to push an anti-car agenda. When really, what we were trying to do was make the transit system run better.
We implemented these transit lanes, and the cars to a certain extent disappeared. In reality, they didn’t really disappear; they just found other routes to take. But traffic was not a disaster. There were not huge backups on Westlake. It worked; and we had significant ridership increase on those bus routes and the streetcar because of it.
Walter Isaacson: The future of bus travel is gaining momentum with projects from Singapore to California. Plotting out how electrically powered, driverless or autonomous buses might ease congestion in our rapidly swelling cities.
Mike Brown: A lot of people are going to be moving into cities. Over the coming decades we’re going to move from just over half the world’s population living in a city, to about two-thirds by 2050.
Walter Isaacson: Mike Brown is a technology reporter at inverse.com.
Mike Brown: With this increasing urbanization of the world, cities are going to have to look at new technologies to better manage different people moving around. If you have absolutely everybody doing the same route 8 a.m. on a Monday morning, it’s not going to be efficient having everybody getting onto the same subway car. You need to encourage people to move in other directions.
Maybe that involves having a smartphone app that suggests to people, “Hey, look, you can take the autonomous bus. That will follow the routes and it’ll get you to your destination in about the same sort of time.”
Walter Isaacson: Powered by big data, these autonomous systems can react dynamically to traffic conditions and commuter patterns. Automatically rerouting themselves and suggesting alternate routes to passengers.
But the reality is that no matter how fast and reliable you make public transit, it can never offer the door-to-door convenience of a car. If you live a mile or so from the nearest bus stop or train station, you probably just get in your car and drive to work. No matter how much mass transit improves, it will never be able to compete with options that can take you from door to door.
That is why transit planners are hoping that commuters will warm up to micro mobility vehicles, such as bikes and scooters to travel those micro distances. For that to truly happen, it will require a very specific and incredibly innovative technological breakthrough. And for a brief moment in time, it looked like we’d found it.
At the end of the 20th Century, an inventor in New Hampshire was struck by an idea for an entirely new method of getting around. And when he introduced it to the world, some people speculated it might become even more important than the Internet.
Dean Kamen: My name is Dean Kamen. To this day, I’m frequently identified when I’m asked to go places or speak, as Dean Kamen, the Segway Guy. The fact is, I’ve spent my entire adult life, and even as a teenager, I started my first company making medical equipment.
Walter Isaacson: Dean Kamen didn’t set out to build a revolutionary scooter. His original goal was to reinvent the wheelchair, after seeing a wheelchair user struggling to negotiate a mall’s curb and store aisles.
Dean Kamen: As I drove home, I just kept thinking, “We put people in submarines under the ocean, and we can fly across the continent. But somebody who’s lost the ability to stand up and balance and walk, is held captive in a 200-year-old piece of junk.”
Walter Isaacson: So Kamen and his team set to work. In 1999, he introduced the world to iBOT: a battery-operated wheelchair that used sensors, microprocessors, and gyroscopes to climb stairs and curbs. It could also stand upright on two wheels, so that users could see and move at eye level.
They had solved one mobility problem, and they soon recognized another potentially bigger opportunity.
Dean Kamen: A few of our engineers realized, “Hey, you know what? If we take the seat off it, if we make this complicated thing that can walk up and down stairs just a platform, but use everything we learned about human balance and servocontrols and solid state gyros and exalometer, we can turn the iBOT into something that everybody could enjoy.” And we called it a Segway.
Walter Isaacson: After months of speculation, the Segway Human Transporter was unveiled with great fanfare in 2001. The self-balancing device had two parallel wheels and was steered using body weight. Kamen boasted, “It would be to the car, what the car was the horse and buggy.”
He expected to be selling 10,000 Segways a week by the end of 2002. That’s half a million a year, but it didn’t work out that way. By 2008 he had sold only 30,000 units. The Segway proved to be too expensive, too heavy, and too hard to figure out where to park. There was nothing cool about being seen on a Segway. despite the disappointing results, Kamen came away from the experience more convinced than ever that cars are not the future of urban transportation.
Dean Kamen: And I think someday it’s pretty clear that cars are not going to be the standard method of moving people at five miles an hour around congested areas. They’re just not going to be. Is it going to be a Segway? Is it going to be something else? I don’t know, but it’s not going to be cars.
Walter Isaacson: Like the Beach Pneumatic Transit Line, or the Schwebebahn, the Segway was an alternate evolutionary path for public transportation. A little ahead of its time, but the world may be beginning to catch up with Dean Kamen’s idea. Alternatives to car ownership are booming. Just ask Uber or Lyft, and now a similar app-driven business model is being applied to electric scooters and bikes.
Lime, based in San Francisco, began as a bike sharing company in June, 2017. Those first bikes were regular pedal bikes, but in 2018 the company added battery-powered bikes and scooters to the mix, and that’s when things really took off. The company now operates in more than 100 cities and 15 countries, and users have taken their e-scooters and bikes for over 30 million rides.
What’s so innovative about Lime and the other companies in this field, is not the scooters but how users access them. Traditional bike sharing operations work like this. You pick it up at a station and return it when you’re finished to another station near your destination. But Lime’s model is different.
Emily Warren: They all operate on a free-floating basis, which means that you can pick them up anywhere and drop them off anywhere, rather than being restricted to certain docking locations, like a traditional bike sharing system.
Walter Isaacson: Emily Warren is a Senior Director of Policy and Public Affairs for Lime.
Emily Warren: And that feature is, I think what makes it so attractive to consumers, because it offers them the level of flexibility to go from where they want to go to where they want to go, and actually be competitive with other modes of transportation, like driving a personal car or even taking a Lyft or Uber. If they can have that same level of flexibility with a scooter or a bike, it becomes useful to them for a much larger number of the types of trips they might take.
Walter Isaacson: But Lime’s practices have raised a few hackles, especially when it comes to what to do with the scooters when you’re done with them. When you’re finished your trip, you simply leave it on the sidewalk for the next user to eventually pick it up. That doesn’t go over so well with pedestrians. Lime is trying to address the parking problem by encouraging its riders to park responsibly and by convincing cities to set aside designated scooter parking corrals.
The solution to the problem of sustainable mass transit on a larger scale may actually come from the world of tech, and specifically from the mind of a tech CEO who has been responsible, at least in the public mind, with redefining how we see the automobile in the 21st century. In doing so, he’s reached back to an idea as old as the Beach Pneumatic Transit System, using vacuum power to move people around.
Ryan Kelly: The idea for Hyperloop has actually been around for over a century. Robert Godard actually came up with the idea of people traveling within a vacuum environment in 1909, and since then there have definitely been ideations on this idea.
Walter Isaacson: Ryan Kelly is the Head of Global Marketing and Communications for Virgin Hyperloop One.
Ryan Kelly: In 2013, Elon Musk printed a white paper about Hyperloop transportation, and we actually came to be in a garage about four years ago, in June of 2014, actually, is when we originated. Since then, there’s been a lot of progress on the Hyperloop front, and we are the only company that’s actually created a working Hyperloop prototype. So it seems like the time is now for Hyperloop to become a reality, 100 years later.
Walter Isaacson: Musk, the CEO of the electric car company, Tesla, brought the idea of vacuum-powered travel into the 21st century with his 57 page white paper. He proposed a high speed form of mass transit for distances up to 900 miles, in the form of sealed tubes containing passenger capsules or pods that could, in theory, zip around the country at speeds of 760 miles per hour. That means you could go to the station in San Francisco, plop yourself in a comfy seat in your pod, check your email, and be in Los Angeles 35 minutes later. The forces behind Hyperloop see it as a long overdue disruptor in the field of mass transit.
Ryan Kelly: We haven’t taken a leap in infrastructure and transportation, or mass transportation, in a very long time here in the United States. So the last leap was really in the 1950s, when we created the interstate systems. Before that, it was connecting the country with rail. The idea of using 1950s solutions to solve 21st century problems doesn’t really make much sense. So our system, the Hyperloop system, has actually taken a lot from the digital revolution as well.
What do people want now? They want something that’s fast. They want something that’s accessible. They want something that’s personalized. They want something that’s sustainable, on demand, et cetera, and Hyperloop really encapsulates that, and we’re trying to form a mass transportation system that works for people.
Walter Isaacson: One of the Hyperloop’s key benefits is its relative sustainability, compared to gas guzzling automobiles and passenger jets.
Ryan Kelly: We have zero direct emissions. We want to use as much clean energy as possible. You’ll see a lot of imagery of our tubes actually with solar panels on top of them, and obviously we’re only as green is the energy that’s in the grid itself, but we want to work with cities and governments to make this as clean as possible. We also go two to three times as fast as high speed rail, but we use the same amount of energy or a little bit less. We are 10 times more energy efficient than an airplane as well.
Walter Isaacson: For now, Hyperloop tubes and pods exist only in various prototypes around the world. In Los Angeles, Elon Musk’s Boring Company recently introduced a one mile working test version, that feels in some ways like an echo of Alfred Ely Beach’s, pneumatic transit system of 150 years ago. Time will tell if it’s more successful than its predecessor, but it has ignited an interest from governments and private industry around the world, in a way Beach could have only dreamed of.
I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. To find out more about any of the guests on today’s show, you can visit our website at delltechnologies.com/trailblazers.
On the next episode, we’ll be looking at the history of fashion, from Civil War uniforms to the online disruptor, Rent The Runway. Until then, thanks for listening.