A fully tubular transport system could take trucks off the streets

ByShannon J. Cortes

May 27, 2022

Years ago, New York and Paris had pneumatic tubes under them. The Paris system, which operated until 1984, was particularly extensive, with 265 miles of pipeline delivering mail to 130 offices. The New York system was not as large, with only 27 miles of tubing. But he could carry bigger packages and even deliver sandwiches. According to Untapped Cities, on his third trip he was carrying a black cat in his 24-inch-long, 8-inch-wide cylinder at 30 miles per hour. The cat was fine.

Now a new company with the surprising name PipeDream wants to bring back tube delivery. But it’s not just a new pneumatic system. Instead, it has some sort of tiny electric tractor pulling a bucket through 12-inch PVC pipes – the same type of cheap pipe used to deliver services today.

What can it carry? According to the PipeDream website: “Literally anything! Well, anything 10″ or less in diameter and less than 16” long. and most prepared foods (pizza is one of the few exceptions, although we are working on it).

They are not expected to circulate between cities at this time. But maybe one day they’ll even deliver burritos via a new version of the Alameda-Weehawken burrito tunnel that apparently ran between San Francisco and New York.

The Singularity Hub notes that transporting large numbers of packages in trucks isn’t particularly good for the environment, and we’ve complained about the way bike lanes are turned into loading docks. CTO Drew Bellcock noted in an interview last year that it would be energy and space efficient compared to drones or robots.

“Drones can’t be the backbone infrastructure for delivery, because if you think about the volume of stuff being delivered, the sky would literally be covered in drones,” Bellcock said. “Also, it costs 25 times more energy to send something using a quadcopter than to drive it in a small robot on the ground. Once you understand this, you realize that ground transport is obviously the way things have to move.”

But he also notes that robots on the ground could cause congestion and safety issues. This is something we complained about on Treehugger. I wrote: “For my part, I do not welcome our new lords of the pavements and I suspect that they will take control of the pavements as the cars have taken control of the roads, that soon a few feet more than sidewalk could be taken away from pedestrians to provide space for robotic lanes, and that once again pedestrians are going to be fooled by the new technology.”

A pneumatic tube at the New York Pennsylvania Terminal Post Office.

Library of Congress / Flickr Commons project, 2011

Just as burying utilities, phone lines and power lines makes sense in cities, so does it. It’s not a diabolical plot like Hyperloop was, which was Elon Musk’s way of killing public transport and infrastructure investment. It is a reasonably sized system that takes trucks off the street. The old delirium York tire system was supposed to deliver submarine sandwiches via pneumatic tubes from a famous Bronx subway store to downtown postal stations. Imagine what it could do at 75 miles per hour.

PipeDream does not go to post offices, but to small terminals which could be located all over the city. It’s encouraging to hear them say, “Our robots can’t fall out of the sky, run off the road, or block a sidewalk. Terminal locations will be selected and designed with security in mind (much like an ATM), and will also be user-friendly and aesthetic.”

Eventually, they would like the portal to enter directly into our homes. There is a logic to this but the burrito is not a necessity like water and electricity. And a water pipe gets smaller the closer it gets to the house; the PipeDream must remain at 12 inches, which is expensive for a single-family home. This system is no different from any other transportation system in that it works best at higher densities where people live in multi-family dwellings. But having one in every mailroom in a building would be a nice bonus.

Ordering online has become part of our lives, but that last mile is incredibly expensive, inefficient and carbon-intensive. There is real logic to this and it could be more than a pipe dream.