Pneumatic Fantastic: The Enduring Allure of Tube Transportation
In the United States, on average, food travels a very long way from farm to fork (a 2007 estimate puts the figure at 1,000 miles for delivery from producer to retail and an enormous 4,200 miles over the entire supply chain). Food transportation accounts for nearly a ton of the average American's CO2 emissions each year, and a good chunk of the 15.5 million trucks on the road.
But what if we could instead send food around the country through a system of lightweight tubes, like a "transport industry Internet." This is the vision of the U.K.-based Foodtubes Project, a consortium of scientists, project managers, and businessmen. On their website, the group argues that a network of just 10,500 miles of subterranean tubes could connect all major food producers and retailers in the British Isles, taking up to 200,000 trucks off the road and saving 40 million tons of CO2.
But doesn't that just replace one form of transport with another? What's so great about pneumatic tubes? The Foodtubes Project argues that 90 percent of the fuel used to transport food by road and rail is used just to move the vehicles. Sending lightweight capsules zooming round through vacuum power or linear-induction still requires electricity, but Foodtubes Project spokesman Noel Hodson claims that the group's calculations demonstrate a saving of 23 percent on overground transport, plus another 77 percent saving from the "decongestion impact"—fuel reclaimed from the inefficiencies of urban gridlock.
Nonetheless, the U.S. equivalent to the Foodtubes Project, the Capsule Pipeline Research Center, has closed its doors to lack of funding, and even the irrepressible Hodson acknowledges that challenging the surface transportation system is an uphill struggle:
The freight industry is deeply entrenched at every level of government and commerce. Many traditional politicians and food bosses are oil-junkies, dedicated to keeping things as they are—whatever the social costs.
This slideshow collects a selection of functioning and fictional pneumatic tube systems from around the world, to showcase their continuing appeal as well as their glorious past. In an era when gas prices are rising, carbon dioxide emissions need to be curbed, and ambitious infrastructural investments seem to be making at least a minor, stimulus-related comeback, perhaps it's time to look at the Foodtubes Project as a serious alternative, despite the awe-inspiring ugliness of their website and PowerPoint presentations.
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This photo shows Andy Warhol with his Andy-Mat restaurant business partners, architect Araldo Cossutta, developer Geoffrey Leeds, and financier C. Cheever Hardwick III. According to restaurant historian Jan Whitaker, "Warhol’s concept included pneumatic tubes through which customers’ orders would be whooshed into the kitchen. The meals served in Andy-Mats, in keeping with the times, were to be frozen dinners requiring only reheating."
The first Andy-Mat was scheduled to open in fall 1977, on Madison Avenue at 74th Street in Manhattan. Sadly, and for reasons that are unclear, it never did, although given Warhol's New York City Diet—"he stayed thin by ordering things he disliked in restaurants"—the food might not have lived up to the hype.
Technical diagram from a U.S. patent issued to Ace Food Services, Inc., in 1997, for a pneumatic food delivery system. Its authors, Charles L. Ables, Peter E. Crull, and Donald E. Evans, claim that "improved efficiency through use of pneumatic systems for delivery of fast food products from a kitchen area to a food delivery area can revolutionize the fast food industry." They also note that soft drink and french fry stations would need to be located in a separate building, so that "only sandwiches and other fast food products which can withstand substantial shock need be transported in the pneumatic food carrier."
Food's corollary, waste, is also transported by pneumatic tube. The best-known and largest example is Roosevelt Island's trash disposal Automated Vacuum Collection system, which has served the island since 1975, but pneumatic garbage tubes can be found in cities around the world. The system has experienced a surge in popularity among city planners recently, with new systems installed as part of urban revitalization programs in Montreal, London, Stockholm, Barcelona, and Carmel, Indiana.
At a pneumatic tube trash conference in New York City last spring (ah, the places I go!), Barcelona's Technical Sanitation Director explained the allure of the AVAC system in terms of urban design: Burying garbage disposal "arranges and releases public space." Meanwhile, in London, Development Consultant Mike Youkee explained that an AVAC system had been incorporated into new housing because "tubes can't go on strike" (memories of the city's winter of discontent, when garbage festered in the streets for months on end, obviously run deep).
For more on Roosevelt Island's AVAC system, check out Fast Trash, a recent exhibition curated by architect Juliette Spertus, whose website includes a fifteen-minute documentary on the subject, Nature Abhors A Vacuum.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, pneumatic tube systems were considered the excitingly modern way to send paperwork and other small items around banks, businesses, and even postal networks. The legendary Sherry Netherland hotel even used them to send restaurant checks from the dining room to the credit check and back again. The image above shows pneumatic tube delivery systems in use at Wanamaker's, the Philadelphia department store.
This pneumatic tube system, used to send human tissue around a Stanford hospital, is still in use today. It has 124 stations, 141 transfer units, 99 inter-zone connectors and 29 blowers, and its cylinders travel at 25 miles per hour across a quarter-mile network without ever getting stuck. Describing it for Gizmodo, journalist Adam Frucci laments the relative rarity of these systems today, ending with a plaintive question: "Where's my pneumatic tube restaurant?"
This image is from a 1994 Federal Highway Administration study "examining the technical and economic feasibility of tube transportation systems to address future freight transportation requirements." Discarding pneumatics in favor of the more advanced linear induction motor, the feds whole-heartedly endorse tube transportation as a "promising concept" with a "number of attractive features," and conclude, as these reports tend to do, with a recommendation for further study.
Coffee, human tissue, and paperwork aside, the idea of using pneumatic tubes for public transportation might seem entirely far-fetched. In fact, the first subway in America ran on the pneumatic system. Invented by Alfred Beach, editor of Scientific American, and opened in 1870, the Beach Pneumatic Transit system consisted of a single car that ran for a single block, from Warren Street to Murray Street in an 8-foot wide tunnel under Broadway. It closed three years later, and its remains are assumed to have been destroyed during subsequent subway construction.
This 1935 issue of Modern Mechanix boasts of Berlin's pneumatic tube hot meal delivery system. While the Berlin pneumatic dispatch system was one of the largest of the word, at more than 250 miles, and operated from 1865 to 1976, it was primarily intended to transport letters and packages, rather than thermos bottles full of soup. Three-quarters of a century later, the idea of a giant central kitchen firing hot meals out across the city on demand remains a fantasy—but a pretty compelling one.