Transporting into the Future

Wondering what the future of commuting beholds, Avenue sent correspondent Omar Mouallem on an assignment – in the year 2033.

While Edmonton readies a new northern LRT line and scrounges funds to take the system west and further south, the Province’s new standing committee on Alberta’s economic future delivered a report on high-speed transportation in May, stating we might be ready for speedy rail when Calgary and Edmonton’s population grow to two million each.

Yes, we’ve heard it for 30 years – Edmonton to Calgary in 45 minutes! But, with high-speed rails, or eerily amazing magnetic levitation trains, cropping up in Germany, China and Japan, the possibility of taking the QE II at 300, 500 – even over 1,000 kilometres an hour – isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds. And it might just be a matter of time, political will and human ingenuity before we’re commuting to Vancouver. Wondering what the future of commuting beholds, Avenue sent correspondent Omar Mouallem on an assignment – in the year 2033.

The pink beret and pigtails drooping over her cream coat are all Miss Muffet, but no kid stands that close to the edge of maglev platform with something good in mind. I notice she’s got a coin pinched between her fingers and a watchful eye on her mother, surely awaiting a moment of distraction that, in these days of augmented glasses and other wearable tech, could come at any moment.

And it does, with the ping of her mom’s watch. The second she starts reading the text scrolling over her wrist, the impish girl flicks the coin onto the tracks to bounce and roll and get snatched up by the guideway’s invisible force. Now, added to its collection of earrings, paperclips and other magnetic ephemera is yet another Canadian quarter.

The girl’s mom yanks her by her hood and admonishes her. “You’ll break the train.” The girl wouldn’t and couldn’t, of course, nor could the incoming train make a scratch on the coin.

The G.P. Line hums in the distance until a fibreglass tube dressed in Quvenzhan Wallis’s perfume ad punches through the elevated tunnel, decelerating smoothly until it’s just hovering inches above the magnetic guideway and the detritus that’s clung to it. The doors whoosh open, splitting the actor’s face so the commuters – yawning from an hour-long nap – can funnel out. The mother, reading her wrist again, leads her daughter aboard by the hand. The actor’s face binds together and the train floats on.

Until now, Junior has been asleep on the bench with his neck cocked over the backrest. Somehow, between his pulsating ear-pills, he still hears the train switch off the south-bound tracks and circle back to Grande Prairie. He lifts the brim of his Oilers cap from his eyes and murmurs, “That mine, Dad?”

I ignore him. For one, we’re catching the same train on the Calgary Line (him for school, me to review a new brunch spot in Kensington for Avenue, which stopped discriminating between the two cities’ amenities years ago), so seeing his old man should be answer enough. But, also, I’m distracted by the G.P. commuters crowding around the escalators, brandishing posters with red lines through Olympic Rings, chanting “Clear the snow, no to 4-Oh.”

Ever since Calgary and Edmonton jointly bid on the 2040 Summer Olympics, we’ve had to endure the tired rants of daytime residents who think they get a say in our budget because they work here now. Never mind that the maglev helped put Alberta at the centre of the country and availed prosperity to everything that connected – just about any community within a 30-minute radius of G.P., Fort Mac, Medicine Hat, Red Deer and Lethbridge. And never mind that the collective power allowed the bid on the Olympics, which could soon put us – them – at the centre of the world. No; snow or potholes, depending on the season, were always more important. Some things never change.

A slight vibration in my boots tells me it’s time. I hit Junior in the chest: “Wake up.” Sensing it as well, travellers along the platform shuffle toward the edge and sure enough the marquee glows: CALGARY – DEPARTURE 10:45 a.m. Though we’d thankfully missed the rush crowd, there were still enough passengers to fill all five coaches.

My business pass allows me any of the work booths with desks at the back of the cab, but seeing as how Junior could hardly keep his eyes open, I better stick with him in case he sleeps through his stop and ends up at the University of Montana. His mother and I so hoped he would enrol in school out east – Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie, maybe further – but he insisted on ACAD, nearby enough to continue avoiding the radical notion of self-sufficiency. Maybe his doctorate studies will get him out of the basement, or maybe the dream of being empty nesters by 60 was a tad ambitious.

Squeezed between Junior and a shaggy-haired man, I consider working on one of my other Avenue assignments – either about the arena proposed to revitalize Terwillegar or the doctor who made a derelict Esso into his stylish abode (the gas-pump shower head was brilliant). Instead, I simultaneously enjoy the view and news scrolling across the augmented windows in front of me, occasionally tapping my Ray-Bans to read past the headlines.

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The train crawls on the tracks, over the Royal Alberta Museum rooftop garden station and through 100th Street, first at pace with the bike lane below, then the manual car lane, and then, as it switches west and charges atop the High Level Bridge at 75 km/h, the self-driving car lane.

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The maglev travels along 111th Street, parallel to the intercity train and the bumper-to-bumper vehicles that are now just stream of colours as we top 100 km/h.

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Once we cut past 100th Avenue SW, most of what’s alongside the QE II is a blur, though I can briefly make out the old international airport (stop the Calgary habit? No chance with this train) before it too passes. At 500 km/h, the smear of white, green and brown beyond the windows makes reading much easier for the next 20 minutes before we pull into Red Deer. The stop is quick: People off, people on. Way more people on. They block the augmented glass so I switch to lens-view to read them in my glasses.

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I double-tap my frames. That one’s worth reading, especially against the backdrop of wind turbines lining the highway. They’re props, of course, a little sleight of hand to keep my focus off the white and grey smoke billowing behind them, on the other side of the forest. So much for clean air, but, hey, how else are we going to power up the maglevs, highs-speed pods and electric cars of Alberta? Hydro, solar and wind? Those could barely charge our smartshoes. If we want to travel like so, do business like so, natural gas it is, coal it is.

I read on.

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Just then, the shaggy-haired guy coughs, sending flecks of spit onto my lap. He apologizes, but I should be thanking him for the reminder. I pull the surgical cap around my neck over my nose and mouth. With 100 million riders along the Edmonton-Calgary corridor each year, who knows what is floating through these cabs? I nudge Junior to do the same. “We’re there?” he mumbles.

“Just about, put on your mask.” He sits up and readies for our 11:30 arrival.

I remember when it was a three-hour drive – four, at this hour; five, in a snowstorm. Back then, each city had a strong diverse economy, hindered only by the urban traffic snarls and sheer distance between us. When the first passengers boarded the maglev 10 years ago, it was like a cork was popped on productivity. Not only did we do more business, but we traded talent. Edmonton energy companies moved their offices south and, likewise, Cowtown’s health and science professionals moved their headquarters north. The Tories, finally, after 62 years in power, could deliver on their promises to shrink government, as it amalgamated the ministries’ offices in Edmonton. Yet these distortions didn’t change anyone’s home address. People still grow up and retire in the same communities, yet change careers four times across just as many cities.

It’s worked out really well for us, but the international cities – the Montreals, San Franciscos and New Yorks – are positively unliveable, even for the millionaires who can afford to reside there. Sidewalks, squares and even roads are congested with day trippers. Catching a Google Taxi or ordering a latte each takes an hour, and Times Square is like a mosh pit – that’s why I haven’t caught a Broadway play in months.

As the train drops speed and floats, Calgary’s Bow Tower quickly grows from a distant dot to a wall outside my window. It’s 11:30.

Junior and I shuffle out of the coach and descend the escalators into a crowd of crisscrossing pedestrians and cyclists. Even in November, Calgary’s starting to look like Montreal these days, which we better get used to if we’re serious about the Olympic summer games. I’m alerted that my car is right on time and I’m requested at the pickup point now. I slap my kid on the back as we split, but call his name over the crowd. “Don’t forget about dinner plans with mom,” I holler. “Seven-thirty at the Cleave and Tube.”

“Where’s that again?”

“Granville Island.”

The story is a composite of predictions made by various experts on magnetic levitation technology, high-speed transit and urban planning. Here’s a shake of their crystal balls.

Mike Hollinshead, B.C. futurist and technological forecaster:

“People commuting from Fort Mac or G.P. are going to want to have a say about living conditions in Edmonton and the availability of services they’re using that previously they weren’t. There will have to be a lot more integration and consenting when it comes to public policy between these communities.”

Paul Saffo, Stanford scholar, essayist and a managing director at Discern Analytics:

“If your car is automatically controlled, it could travel a foot or two off the bumper of the car in front of you, and you will increase the capacity of the road systems by a factor of 10. So, that’s the competition for high-speed rail: Intelligent personal cars.”

Sam Gurol, director of transportations programs at the San Diego-based technology company, General Atomics:

“As you build more electrical vehicles, your electrical energy demand is going to go up. Ideally, you want that electricity produced in a clean manner, without burning coal, oil and natural gas. You could get power for a maglev vehicle by putting solar panels right on top of the guideway – but that’s if you’re not dealing with snow and ice.”

Calgary-East MLA Moe Amery, chair of the standing committee on Alberta’s economic future:

“We’ve talked about high-speed rail between Calgary and Edmonton for 30 years, but it’s only economically viable if you have two million people on each side of the tracks. Alberta is gaining 100,000 people every year and, by 2023, the cities’ [metro areas] will be very close to the four-million mark.”

Sandeep Agrawal, director of University of Alberta Planning Program:

“A high-speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton will radically transform the transportation linkages, not only between the two cities, but all across the province. It has the potential to change the pattern of urbanization, as well as the economies of the two  cities and the province.”

Dan Corns, CEO of Edmonton magnetic levitation technology company Magnovate:

“Business deals don’t get done until people meet in person, so this increases the frequency of face-to-face interactions. It’s the physical form of the Internet – people and goods moving like information.”

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