You've tried the heliport on the riverfront, right? You know, the one right by the baseball stadium?
And isn’t it nice to have high-speed monorail cruising through Northern Kentucky?
Oh, never mind.
None of that exists.
But the heliport and monorail were once part of our grand plans for transportation, going all the way back to the 1940s.
The point is this: We love to make predictions about the future. It’s fun to think ahead about jetpacks and teleportation. But sometimes – Cincinnati subway, anyone? – we’re just plain wrong.
“When you’re trying to address transportation needs, you have to think way out in the future,” said Scott Gampfer, associate vice president for collections and preservation at the Cincinnati Museum Center. “It takes so long to build anything or to make anything happen, and things change.”
Gampfer points to predictions that Cincinnati’s main airport would be in Blue Ash. And that there would be a vertical takeoff and landing pad at Union Terminal (because, surely, all planes would take off and land vertically by the ‘80s).
“It’s just interesting," he said, "because they thought, ‘That’s the direction things are going.' And it didn’t go that direction at all.”
Below are some ideas about the future of transportation in Cincinnati. Flying taxis, city-to-city hyperloop, sci-fi -esque pods – it’s all there.
And these aren’t just car-in-the-sky ideas – these are real projects scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs here are working on.
But remember – just like that riverfront heliport – it could all be but a dream. Ditch the car, grab a pod
You’ve seen the Jetsons' spaceship, right?
A company called Transit X wants to build a system of solar-powered pods that would glide on elevated tracks above the city.
Transit X CEO Mike Stanley says the pods could go 45 miles per hour in the city and up to 150 miles per hour between cities. And this is more than just a subway in the sky; the pods don't have to stop at every station, so each trip would be nonstop.
If you go to Transit X’s website right now, there are at least half a dozen project proposals that pertain to the Cincinnati region. One, a 348-mile network that crosses from Cincinnati to Kentucky, is projected to cost $1.8 billion. Another, a 19-mile network around the University of Cincinnati, is forecast at $142 million.
Stanley says the projects could be privately financed, and he told The Enquirer he already has three agreements for Transit X pilots in the Cincinnati area. He expects to break ground in 2019 and have a system up and running here by 2020.
“But,” he said, “it depends on government processes, which are difficult to predict.”
Stanley wouldn’t say exactly where or with whom he is planning Transit X pilots, but at least one of his projects pertains to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Airport spokeswoman Mindy Kershner was vague, saying only that the airport has "expressed interest in supporting rapid transit concepts, like Transit X."
"Our interest is leveraging CVG as a beta-site," she said, "for advancing technologies that could create viable, complementary advanced transportation solutions for the region and beyond."
Travel in a tube
Imagine this: You walk down a flight of stairs and climb into a cylindrical tube. The door shuts. You take off. It’s about 9:15 a.m. in Cincinnati.
Half an hour later, you walk out onto the streets of Chicago, where, thanks to the time difference, it’s a quarter ‘til. You stroll a few blocks to your office, and you’re at your desk by 9.
It's called hyperloop, and scientists and students at the University of Cincinnati are already working to make this vision a reality.
The concept is to travel in a tube with no air, said Shaaban Abdallah, a professor of aerospace engineering and UC’s hyperloop adviser. No air means no friction, allowing you to shoot up to 760 miles per hour – much faster than the typical plane ride.
And, hyperloop is immune to the weather, since everything is contained inside the tube.
It's unclear exactly how hyperloop will work, what it would feel like to travel so fast and who will be the first to launch.
Abdallah thinks it will be used first for cargo – say, for shipping Amazon packages – and then for people. It’ll be straight shots at first, he said, no turns. A tube from Cincinnati to Columbus, for example, then a separate tube from Columbus to Cleveland
Later, as technology advances, it could evolve into door-to-door hyperloop.
Taking taxis to the sky
In a quiet corner at Lunken airport in late November, a group gathers near a helicopter. They watch intently as the pilot lifts off, hovers about 10 feet above the ground for 30 seconds, then lands.
It might not look like much to a passerby, but the team behind the Loveland-based SureFly helicopter is psyched.
This helicopter – debuted at the Paris Air Show in 2017 – is different. Rather than one large propeller, it has eight mini propellers, each independent and operated by an electric motor.
The prototype is fully electric, but the final version will be a hybrid.
And, it will be about as easy to fly as a drone, requiring much less training and skill than would a traditional helicopter. (Plus, if all else goes wrong, there's a ballistic parachute built into the craft.)
"If you can operate a car, you can operate the SureFly," said Jeffrey Bennett, aerospace project manager for the SureFly.
Eventually, the SureFly team hopes their helicopter will be used for personal, daily travel around the city. Or, as an autonomous heli-taxi. It's like calling an Uber, but instead of the car rolling up alongside you at the curb, the SureFly lands, you climb in, and you fly away to your destination.
The SureFly is just one example, said Kelly Cohen, interim head of UC's department of aerospace engineering. Quickly, Cohen said, we are moving toward an era of drone transportation.
A heli-taxi from Downtown to the airport? Sure. In fact, there could be different hubs all throughout the region, Cohen said, a system of invisible highways in the sky.
"Basically, these are big drones with people in them," he said. "I'd love to be able to commute from Mason, where I live, drive a car to a local hub and fly to UC.
"They could easily fly at 150 miles per hour. No traffic, right, so they'd be able to zip in, zip out. ... The technology exists. This is not science fiction." Talking cars... kind of
We've all been there. You pull up to a stoplight at night. It's red, so you stop and wait. And wait. And wait. EVEN WHEN THERE ARE NO OTHER CARS AROUND!
Soon, said Cohen, from UC, that "absurd situation" will be a problem of the past. Cars and streetlights will all be connected, talking wirelessly with one another to avoid such frustrations.
If there's no one coming the other way, don't worry. The light will know that, and it will change to green for you.
Cohen thinks much of transportation's future will be centered on connectivity –automated cars talking with other automated cars, stoplights, crosswalks, even the road itself.
If one car hits a patch of ice, it can warn the cars behind it.
And cars could link up like a train, traveling much faster down the highway as a unit than is possible today.
"How do we know these two wagons in a train don't collide? Because they're physically linked," Cohen said. "They can't separate too much, and the wiggle room is a few inches. So, basically, today, through a good wireless connection, we can give you the same level of fidelity. You can basically double the capacity of the road."
A lot of what comes regarding transportation will depend on what people want and can accept, Cohen said. Technology can reduce human error and indecision, but only if people are willing to use it.
"It's the whole social component," Cohen said. "It's a mindset. The technology is there for me to build the prototype within a year and prove the concept."
Is this real, or nah?
Remember this summer, when Cincinnati got e-scooters and we all lost our minds? Scofflaws brushing pedestrians on the sidewalk (enough, already). A hit-and-scoot that sent a woman to urgent care.
If scooters sent us into a tizzy, how in the world are we expected to manage flying taxis and space-agey pods?
Garry Golden is a futurist. Basically, he went to college for future-predicting. (Seriously, he has a Master's of Science in Foresight from the University of Houston.)
And Golden is a little tempered on how quickly some of these changes will come to transportation. It depends a lot on local policy, he said. It's not just, Can you build it? It's, Can you build it, and will City Hall let you use it?
"The world of self-driving cars, that will be the most regulated world we've ever seen," Golden said. "They're not just going to let self-driving cars take over the city."
The tech stuff gets all the attention, Golden said, but when he thinks about the future, he thinks more about whether public transportation will be privatized and about what data and displays might better help people plan their trips in real-time.
"Elon Musk's hyperloop – that doesn't get a food-service worker who has a 5 a.m. shift to their job across town," Golden said. "There's a difference between futuristic and the future."
In 25 to 50 years, Golden thinks we may have hyperloop between cities. He thinks that will probably happen before flying cars are the norm.
But until then, you should probably hang on to your car.