It would have been amazing if Matthew Modine crashed into Quincy Market at 4,000 miles per hour last Friday. Talk about stranger things.
Not all dreams come true, but the crowd on hand for Boston GreenFest did get to experience Nick Garzilli, a partner of Modine’s at the Santa Monica-based tube travel startup Hyper Chariot. Though not a Tinsel Town celeb like his chiseled associate, Garzilli, a tech executive who’s led campaigns against publicly subsidized high speed rail projects in California, delivered a performance in the 275-year old hall that was worthy of a sci-fi motion picture treatment.
The name of the event, dubbed an “eco forum” by the GreenFest organizers, left the door wide open for evangelists and future boosters like Garzilli: “Transportation Tomorrow Today.” Other panelists included Chris Dempsey, the director of the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition, Greater Four Corners Action Coalition organizer Mela Bush Miles, and Tim Lasker, the sustainability specialist for the MBTA. And while such grounded representatives from various worker and advocacy groups focused on the “today” part of the colloquium title, Garzilli hopped on the “tomorrow” train, opening with a pitch about turning the Hub into Epcot:
“There are these contraptions, these transportation networks if you want to call the roller coasters that … They’re going all over and they’re doing crazy things to people—4 or 5G—insane stuff. They’re insured, and they have a much higher safety record than our roads, much higher … So what if we took a step back, and looked at our cities and tried to turn them into amusement parks?”
We weren’t being trolled. At least not in the traditional sense. I suppose it all depends on how you feel about Garzilli, whose GreenFest bio notes that he once “had a private meeting with Elon Musk at Space X, the month before Musk announced Hyperloop.” Indeed, Garzilli’s Hyper Chariot, which “is working to shoot you safely through a tube at 4,000 mph,” is the seven-minute abs alternative to Musk’s octogenarian Hyperloop, which lazily wants to move passengers at a mere 760 mph. As Garzilli further explained:
“We got all this congestion on our roads, but we could have solar-powered pod cars everywhere. And this could all be privately funded and privately operated without any subsidies. And we can insure these like we insure amusement rides … You should be able to build this stuff above our city streets or under the highway. When you’re sitting in traffic, look up, and say, ‘Wow, what if the city leased that space to innovators?’ The technology is there, but we’re stuck in the past. There are solutions.”
The idea of a steroidal bullet train blasting between South Station and Dorchester, with various neighborhood stops, seemed appealing to the other panelists and to a few heads in the crowd as well. But only superficially, since the reality of transit in Boston eclipses the hope of a hyper tomorrow. As Mela Bush Miles, who chairs the Fairmount Indigo Transit Coalition along with her work for the Four Corners group, noted:
“Right now we have a thing going on in Boston around the Fairmount Line where you have trains that are dirty, old filthy diesel trains slunking through the community, and people cannot get on the train but they have to take the byproduct of those trains blowing past them and destroying their health.”
Miles, who started advocating for transportation justice years ago in response to her son’s asthma, further explained why she isn’t holding her breath for newfangled solutions.
“The communities should not have to take the burden of the toxins without the benefit of the transportation,” Miles said. “We should have the benefits and not just the consequences.”
After which Lasker, the MBTA sustainability specialist, added, “I’m not against the concept at all, but I have this sticky problem of dealing with today’s reality. And to get to transportation of the future and tomorrow, I have to deal with what we have right now. I have to move 1.35 million people today. This afternoon at 5 o’clock. I love hearing about these different innovative solutions, and I hear you say private investor, and it sounds great, but I would love to see the proof in the pudding … It’s hard for me to go and sell something to the general public that they haven’t really seen or touched.”
Despite Garzilli’s clear disdain for public transit—at one point he said “it only really serves a couple of people”—there was actually some agreement among panelists, in part thanks to the deft and friendly moderation of Peter Arpin, a businessman and sustainability expert, but mostly born from a common belief among participants that government bureaucracies—in cahoots with their cronies in private enterprise—have largely bungled mass transportation, and done so egregiously in Greater Boston. As for the solutions … that’s where similarities ended.
On the more practical side of the spectrum with Miles, Dempsey warned that T fixes should be a primary priority but also acknowledged the “many cities around the country that are incredibly envious of the urban fabric that Boston has, because we are walkable [and] bikeable [with] beautiful streets and beautiful neighborhoods.” Following comparable comments from the panel and audience, in which people expressed regional pride along with serious concern about inadequate service and crumbling infrastructure, Garzilli saw an opening to pitch an alternative that few in the crowd had likely considered.
“They got permits to build new nations in French Polynesia,” Garzilli said, name-checking the controversial venture capitalist Peter Thiel. “I was actually approached by this group for a new transportation system for this … There is going to be an opportunity, for people who have been handed a raw deal … the impoverished people … There are people who are trying to solve this with new nations, and they have been given permission to build us a way out … And we’re going to have these new transportation systems out there, and people are going to start leaving this country and other countries to go live there. What are all the politicians gonna do then?”
Seemingly unmoved by the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in Peter Thiel’s privately funded tubular paradise, the other panelists gave closing comments that primarily addressed the present nightmare and steered clear of science fiction.
“You have something new, and then there’s not the political will to get it where it needs to be,” Miles said. She wasn’t talking about Hyperloop. “They even tested out [electric] trains last year that could make [the Fairmount Line] rapid transit, and now they’re on mothballs somewhere because, ‘Oh, just give [the public funding] to the Kraft Group [and the New England Patriots] and run it down to Foxborough.’”
Speaking of which, I can see it now—the TB Hyperloop express! Back Bay to Gillette in 30 seconds, with limitless Mach razor marketing ops. A thousand bucks to sit in seat number 12, two hundred a pop for the rest of you suckers.