Why We Should Fix What We've Got Instead of Starting From Scratch

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ This needs fixing

Do we need hyperloops? No, we need trains that work.

It's so easy to fall in love with the flash of Elon Musk's underground hyper loop -- the new, the shiny, the technology of the future. When I complained about Musk's "verbal approval" of a New York to Washington tunnel, a reader said I "come off as a someone who is trapped in a past century." Perhaps I am. I loved riding the Washington Metro, and noted earlier that I had never been in one so beautiful, with grand vaulted and coffered ceilings, designed by Harry Weese, that reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome. It can carry hundreds of thousands of people every day. When it runs. The trouble is that it often doesn't, thanks to deferred maintenance and deteriorating infrastructure.

Writing in the New York Times, Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel tell us that we shouldn't get so excited about new tech solutions but recommend instead, Let’s Get Excited About Maintenance! They note how, across the country, things are falling apart.

Why are we in this predicament? One obvious answer is that officials in federal, state and local government do not allocate the resources necessary for preventive maintenance. But their inaction is a symptom of a deeper problem, one that is too seldom discussed: Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.

Oh, and they do have words about Mr. Musk and the "verbal approval" and the whole Silicon Valley attitude:

Mr. Musk’s idea indulges a fantasy common among Silicon Valley types: that the best path forward is to scrap existing reality and start over from scratch. With urban transport, as with so many other areas of our mature industrial society, a clean slate is rarely a realistic option. We need to figure out better ways of preserving, improving and caring for what we have.

The authors conclude by noting that "maintenance is an area of public policy where conservatives and progressives should see eye to eye. The conservative tradition asks us to preserve what we have inherited from our ancestors, and the progressive tradition seeks to provide the greatest good for the greatest number."

But in fact, it is conservatives who most often starve the maintenance budgets of the systems we have, and are often the most enthusiastic about the new technologies. After all, why invest in public transit if self-driving cars and Uber can do the job instead? Why invest in high speed rail when we can have a hyperloop that is faster and cheaper?

Personally, I still believe that bikes are the most efficient form of transportation in cities and decent trains are the best way to get between them, rather than self-driving Teslas and Hyperloops. I believe in fixing things instead of replacing them. Perhaps my commenter is right; I belong in another century.