In searching for ways to reduce crippling congestion on its highways, Colorado is looking beyond roads and traditional vehicles. State officials have announced the formation of a public/private partnership with Los Angeles startup Arrivo, an engineering company intent on building a hyperloop-inspired transportation system that runs along a track and can be used by both passengers and vehicles. Workers will begin constructing a test track for the next-generation technology near the E-470 tollway in Commerce City, in the Denver area, within a matter of months. Should it prove feasible, officials involved in the partnership say they intend to make further infrastructure investments that will enable commercial operations along at least one route within four to five years.
Eventually, they envision an entire network throughout the greater Denver metropolitan region that is capable of carrying both cargo vehicles and passenger cars while whittling travel times that are measured in hours today to a matter of minutes.
“What it means is that the whole region could be connected within 20 minutes,” said Brogan BamBrogan, a former SpaceX engineer who co-founded Arrivo earlier this year. “You can have dinner in Boulder and dessert in Golden. Or get from Castle Rock to the airport in 13 minutes. We connect to other forms of transportation, too, so really we want to unlock the whole region within 20 minutes or less. And with Denver seeing a massive population spike, it can enable mobility and keep housing prices in reach. At a macro level, it enables the whole region to remain healthy.”
To be certain, this remains little more than a blueprint and a dream. But the novelty of Arrivo’s system lies in how the network might be accessed. Commuters and truckers might one day exit a highway, drive in to an Arrivo station, and inch their vehicles into one of four models of pods that operate on an enclosed electromagnetic track at speeds as fast as 200 miles per hour. A proprietary switching mechanism, BamBrogan says, allows pods to exit at stations without slowing down movement on the main tracks.
A trucker driving northbound on Interstate 25 from Colorado Springs, for example, could enter the Arrivo system on the south side of Denver and exit on the north side in eight minutes, bypassing more than an hour’s worth of snarled traffic within the city’s limits.
“Perhaps there’s a freight component to this, a concept whereby, for ‘through trucks’ coming up I-25 with no plans to stop in Denver, maybe we pull them all off south of Denver and ship them around to take that interstate traffic out of downtown,” said Shailen Bhatt, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation. “These are just some of the ideas we’re playing with. A lot more has to fall into place.”
“We can’t widen all the highways and roadways
to deal with 20th-century transportation.”
– Shailen Bhatt, CDOT
Unlike projects such as the one sketched out by Elon Musk in 2013 that is now being pursued by the likes of Hyperloop One, the Arrivo vehicles do not travel in a sealed tube free of resistance. They are propelled with a linear electric motor, and they levitate at high speeds, like the maglev trains that operate in Germany and Japan. There’s a more philosophical difference in the two transportation modes: True hyperloops travel at speeds of up to 700 miles per hour, in theory, and connect major cities to each other, while Arrivo’s network intends to promote mobility inside cities.
Colorado is no stranger to the nuances between the two. In September, executives from Hyperloop One picked the state’s proposed route as one of 10 finalists in its global competition to find a site for its first major project.
Over the past 16 months, the state has pushed to transform its roads into laboratories for future-minded pilot projects. Ride-hailing service Lyft offers subsidized rides to suburban commuters to connect them from their homes to public-transportation stations near Denver. Last fall, a self-driving truck trundled 120 miles along Interstate 25 near Fort Collins on a beer-delivery run. In August, the Colorado Department of Transportation began using autonomous vehicles designed to absorb impacts and protect workers in construction zones.
But those advances, even at their most promising, don’t necessarily alleviate traffic congestion. Along with the recent national increase in road deaths, traffic congestion ranks as one of Bhatt’s major long-term concerns.
“I’m a huge proponent of connected and automated cars, but there’s great uncertainty on whether they’ll reduce or increase vehicle miles traveled [VMT],” he said. “That is unknown. Even if they just hold VMT and bring safety benefits, we can’t widen all the highways and roadways.”
As Colorado seeks to expand its economic development efforts, both broadly and and, more specifically, by chasing Amazon’s second headquarters, ease of mobility has emerged as a key criterion for businesses. “All of the cities that want to play in this sphere are trying to win in the 21st century,” Bhatt said. “You kind of need to have an all-of-the-above mentality when it comes to transportation.” In establishing itself as a hub for testing of advanced transportation, Denver joins the likes of Boston, Phoenix (with its Waymo pilot project), Pittsburgh, and San Francisco.
Arrivo’s team will be part of that growth. The company intends to keep 70 to 80 employees based at its Los Angeles headquarters while expanding to 40 to 50 employees in its Denver ranks by the end of 2018, according to BamBrogan.
During an event touting the new partnership, BamBrogan and Bhatt toured a facility that held a 1949 Packard, a 1957 Chevrolet, a ’59 Plymouth, and a ’64 Mustang. BamBrogan, an ardent car enthusiast, said he views Arrivo as a natural progression of vehicle-related transportation technology. At first blush, that doesn’t necessarily square with Arrivo’s vision of having a pod essentially do the work of the idled car. But, he said, “if you do want to get your car out, you can get out of the city and into the country, where you can let it loose.”