The proposals that Brogan BamBrogan and Andrew Liu showed Shailen Bhatt promised a fanciful world: highways moving ten times more vehicles than they do now. Shipments zipping throughout the Denver area at 200 miles per hour. People getting from their homes to the airport gate in minutes. A new mode of transportation, moving people in numbers and speed far beyond what any metro system in the world accomplishes today. “The end of traffic,” they called it.
This was August 2017, when BamBrogan and Liu, cofounders of futuristic transportation company Arrivo, pitched Bhatt, then the executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, on their ambitious vision. They hoped to enter a partnership with the governing body on their “inspired by the Hyperloop concept.”
Arrivo’s pitch promised its technology would propel both specifically designed pods and people’s personal cars on sleds at hundreds of miles an hour, running along the medians of existing highways. Based on “linear-electric motors and magnetic levitation,” it would cost about the same to use as public transit or a toll road.
Bhatt says he was less captivated by their vision than their goal of building a proof-of-concept test track in Colorado, which would mean jobs for the state. In a follow-up letter sent to the Arrivo cofounders, which WIRED obtained along with Arrivo’s pitch materials and other documents through a public records request, he said he shared an Arrivo document with then-governor’s John Hickenlooper’s office. He assured BamBrogan and Liu that their interest in partnering with Colorado “has interest at the highest level.”
On November 14, the Colorado DOT, Arrivo, and the E-470 Public Highway Authority announced a partnership to build a test track along E-470, the toll interstate that runs through the western Denver suburbs and connects to Denver International Airport. They would hire up to 200 employees and conduct feasibility studies in exchange for $267,000 in performance-based incentives from the Colorado Office of Economic Development. Along with renderings of the system, Arrivo released a video of Bhatt and BamBrogan admiring classic cars and talking about transportation technology. In a press release announcing the deal, BamBrogan boasted, “Arrivo will end traffic and futureproof regional mobility.”
It didn’t quite work out that way. At the end of 2018, Arrivo shut down due to a lack of funding. Construction on the test track, originally slated to begin in the first quarter of 2018, never broke ground. Arrivo never completed its feasibility study. There is no evidence the company ever completed a proof of concept at any scale. BamBrogan did not respond to an interview request, and attempts to reach Liu were unsuccessful.
The speedy demise of Arrivo and its promised transportation system makes one wonder what CDOT saw in a company without any clear evidence it could deliver on outrageous promises. And it raises the larger questions of how much credibility future-focused mobility companies get by partnering with governments—even if their ideas amount to little more than glossy marketing brochures—and what those governments hope to gain in the process.
Indeed, Arrivo’s pitch to CDOT included claims that Yonah Freemark, a PhD candidate in urban studies at MIT and founder of the influential website The Transport Politic, calls “very unrealistic.” In one presentation, proposing a connection to the Denver airport, Arrivo promised its “Super Metro” people-mover, which could fit 20 or 30 passengers, would transport 72,000 to 108,000 people per hour. That’s three to four times the peak capacity of New York’s L subway train, one of the busiest in the system.
Meanwhile, Denver already has a good airport connector. In his book Trains, Buses, People, transportation expert Christof Spieler named the A line one of the best commuter rail lines in the country, noting it is the only such system in the country that runs every 15 minutes, seven days a week. (Spieler is, though, critical of Denver’s transit network in general.)
“We weren’t necessarily invested in the transformative piece of their technology,” says CDOT spokesperson Amy Ford. Rather, the agency wanted to investigate what the governance structure could look like should the technology come to fruition, she says. CDOT and Arrivo paid for their own studies with the consultant firm Aecom, Arrivo cofounder Liu’s previous employer. Ford says CDOT spent $250,000 on this study, which will cover not just Arrivo but other potential hyperloop and future mobility technologies. Ford described the expense as worthwhile regardless of Arrivo’s existence, and as a tiny portion of the department’s $1.4 billion annual budget. “If this was a 100-step process, we were at step, like, three,” Ford says.
Although Bhatt no longer works for CDOT, he says it will take big ideas to solve Colorado’s congestion challenges. Ten years ago, he wouldn’t have predicted app-based car services would transform urban transportation. Two years ago, he wouldn’t have guessed e-scooters would flood urban areas. Instead of trying to predict what will or won’t work, Bhatt says his role as a government official was to ask, “How do we make sure we are creating an environment where companies feel like they can come and do business?”
The Arrivo partnership fit into CDOT’s RoadX program, which encourages public-private partnerships to address serious congestion and a booming population. It’s all about big ideas. “We've been flying to the moon since the 1960s,” the RoadX web site beckons, “the time has come for transportation on this planet to make a giant leap.”
RoadX is perhaps the most coordinated effort by any state to court futuristic transportation companies, but it’s part of a larger trend. Elon Musk’s Boring Company has engaged, to varying degrees, with Chicago to build a tunnel from The Loop to O’Hare Airport (although that project is in serious jeopardy due to shifting political winds), two tunnels in LA (one of which was cancelled), and a Washington, D.C. to Baltimore connector. Virgin Hyperloop One, BamBrogan’s former employer, named CDOT among the 10 winners of a “Global Challenge” to propose feasible routes in welcoming places.
But for more traditional transportation experts, this shoot-for-the-moon mindset is indicative of this country’s mobility issues: While they like the idea of maglev trains and supersonic tubes, American cities often fail to get the basics of transportation planning right, like running reliable bus and rail service.
“Americans are constantly hoping for what's next, dreaming of some great new invention that will save them from whatever ills they currently experience,” says Freemark. “It's not surprising that the Arrivo videos are filled with scenes of people's daily lives—work, soccer, the beach—because it's meant to simply be placed on top of whatever we already have, yet somehow instantly make everything better. In that way, it's no surprise at all that political officials would find it appealing.”
One of the very reasons governments may find these futuristic options so attractive is they don’t yet know precisely how they will work, so they can fit any vision desirable. They’re essentially a blank slate, on which every improvement can be imagined and all downsides or skepticism assumed away. And who doesn’t want to be at the vanguard of innovation?
Arrivo’s flop hasn’t stopped Colorado from pursuing a shiny future. RoadX is moving ahead with its partnership with Virgin Hyperloop One. It’s hoping to build a pilot tube between the city of Greeley and the airport about 40 miles to the south, and possibly build an entire network across the state.
Once its feasibility study is completed, Ford says CDOT might have a clearer picture of the regulatory and other hurdles that need to be cleared. But if the country’s inability to construct high-speed rail—not to mention run conventional rail networks—is any indication, that will just be the beginning of what it takes to make real hyperloop or whatever idea comes next. Or, as Ford indicated, there are still 97 steps to go.