Since I arrived in Maryland 35 years ago, traffic congestion has increased almost exponentially. Yet relatively nothing has been done to alleviate the congestion problem. This is because very little can be done to accommodate a doubling or tripling of the number of vehicles. The simple reason for this is that road capacity is limited — and measurable. If the “throughput” of vehicles exceeds 2,000 vehicles per lane-mile, per hour, you get traffic jams.
The only way to accommodate all the additional vehicles is to build new lanes of roadway to keep up with maximum throughput. But, this creates a huge problem. Besides being exorbitantly expensive and environmentally disastrous, more road building is impractical from a land use perspective — yet this is exactly what our state department of transportation is trying to do because the “public” is demanding road widening.
Coincidentally, this is the very same “public” that chose to buy cheaper new homes in exurbia on land that was previously occupied by car-less cows. Despite a national average of 1.1 passengers per vehicle, these new exurban commuters are demanding new roadway infrastructure so they can use their private transport conveyances. Exurban sprawl development puts private transport convenience before public transport efficiency, which undermines universal mobility in the process.
We do not need more lanes to fit in more cars; we need fewer cars on our roads. In order to accomplish this, we need fast, reliable transit as a practical and viable alternative to road travel. This means achieving much faster door-to-door trip times for transit riders than is currently available with present U.S. transit technology.
In urban areas with efficient mass transit, cars are excess baggage. Shanghai, China, is a city of over 24 million people with lots of cars. Without its new and expansive subway system and passenger rail service, cross-city mobility would be impossible. In this city, as with any large urban area, time is the most important commodity. This is why Shanghai embarked on an ambitious project to build 19 subway lines that will eventually provide station access that is no further than 2,000 feet from any resident in the central part of Shanghai.
Incidentally, the Shanghai metro system now owns the 19-mile high-speed (267 mph) maglev line from Pudong International Airport to Longyang Station southeast of downtown. When this line is extended to Hongqiao Airport (a domestic flights terminal and high speed rail station) on the west side of town, the present two-hour subway ride or taxi ride between the two airports will be reduced to 15 reliable minutes — a transformational development for travelers traversing these two airports.
This is a perfect example of why congested areas such as our northeast corridor demand new transportation infrastructure that enables the reliable and efficient movement of more people per hour through a narrower right of way than any 20-lane highway — and something a dual-track maglev does in a financially sustainable and environmentally benign way.
Knowing all this, I have found it excruciatingly painful to watch the debate swirling around the Baltimore-D.C. maglev proposal. Eighteen years ago I was involved with the German Transrapid effort to build a maglev between Baltimore and D.C. and saw all the same arguments for and against. Meanwhile, travel along the I-95 corridor is more stressful, slower and less reliable.
The fact is, very few Americans understand what maglev is, what it can do and, especially, what it costs. For starters, maglev is not just one technology; it is a class of technologies — all with different performance and speed characteristics, technological approaches and capital cost requirements.
There are a variety of commercial maglevs operating in Korea, Japan and China, with more systems coming online in the near future. The Chinese have now embraced this technology and have developed their own versions of low, high and medium speed maglev systems. However, it is not the high-speed capability of maglevs that makes them good for mass transit. A maglev system’s true advantage lies with its extremely low operational and maintenance costs accompanied with high reliability at all speed ranges — in other words, no “speed/maintenance penalty.” Unlike high-speed trains, maglev maintenance is essentially the same at 30 mph as it is at 300 mph and far safer since they cannot derail. These systems are also incredibly quiet and provide an extremely smooth ride (just check out the many videos on YouTube).
When I was involved in some Colorado high-speed rail/maglev studies (2009-2016), I provided verifiable information about the much lower cost of building new maglev infrastructure. To the amazement of the study’s engineers, they learned that through automated high quality mass production of component parts and advanced construction techniques (developed overseas) that both manufacturing and construction times could be vastly accelerated and, as a consequence, result in an initial capital cost that was far lower than high-speed rail infrastructure costs. That’s right, one maglev technology had lower costs. Surprisingly, an elevated infrastructure not only helps lower costs, but also improves the safety and reliability of the system and prevents bifurcation of communities.
So, my point is that maglev is totally doable and cost effective in the right corridors. The real objective of the Northeast Maglev project is to build a 1-hour maglev from D.C. to New York City to make driving I-95 unattractive and financially impractical.
Future generations are the ones who will thank us for building such a smart travel option.
Kevin C. Coates (www.coatesconsult.com) is a maglev transport consultant living in Rockville and is presently writing a book on mobility challenges.