Elon Musk’s “Plan” to Cure Traffic With Tunnels Is Terrible and Ridiculous

Maybe Elon Musk should stick to solar panels and rocketships. Photo:  JD Lasica via Flickr
Maybe Elon Musk should stick to solar panels and rocketships. Photo: JD Lasica via Flickr

Let’s not pretend that Elon Musk’s idea to bypass LA congestion by building a tunnel under the city — first Tweeted out while he was apparently stewing in traffic — is at all practical or worthy of serious consideration.

But it is good for ridicule.

Burying highways under cities isn’t a new idea. Boston’s “Big Dig” became shorthand for “infrastructure boondoggle” for a generation. A similar project underway in Seattle is shaping up to be nearly as big a fiasco.

Even if boring under cities to add highway lanes was cheap and easy (this is Musk’s big tease — that he’s somehow going to revolutionize the process), it still wouldn’t solve the problem. But Musk doesn’t seem to be aware of the law of induced demand, writes Leah Binkovitz at Rice University’s the Urban Edge:

Then there’s the effectiveness of tunnels as a solution to traffic.

“A tunnel wouldn’t reduce traffic. Nor would a new highway, or five new highways,” wrote Alex Davies for Wired. “Blame the law of induced demand, which says the more roads you build, the more people come out to use them. As Gilles Duranton and Matthew A. Turner write in The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US Cities, ‘[Vehicle-kilometers traveled] increases proportionately to roadway lane kilometers for interstate highways.’ In other words, mo’ tunnel, mo’ traffic.”

To further add to the speculation, just days ago, Musk hinted on Twitter that he may be interested in combining his tunnel boring technology with his much-hyped Hyperloop system, his proposed mode of transportation that would allow people to travel in pods at speeds faster than airplanes.

Does it all seem confusing? Even Musk agrees. “We have no idea what we’re doing. I want to be clear about that,” Musk told a crowd last month,

If LA has learned anything from its recent experience widening the 405, it will run the other way from this idea. After $1.6 billion was spent on a carpool lane, data shows the road is as congested as ever.

More recommended reading: Plan Philly reports that a local council member’s move to make sidewalk furniture subject to special approval was rescinded after public outcry. And in light of a particularly bad bike bill in the Minnesota statehouse, Streets.mn considers what a thoughtful proposal to improve the safety of cyclists would look like.

125 thoughts on Elon Musk’s “Plan” to Cure Traffic With Tunnels Is Terrible and Ridiculous

  1. Toll roads typically go bankrupt immediately. Turns out very few people will pay much of anything to avoid congestion.

    Toll roads only do OK if there are no free roads to compete with them, or if the free roads are much slower (for geometric reasons or due to traffic lights, not due to congestion). LA is already riddled with expressways, so there’s no way for a toll road to succeed unless it criss-crosses the grid in a direction different from an expressway.

    A RAIL tunnel, on the other hand, will be popular because we don’t have enough of them in LA yet.

  2. Nope, Musk hasn’t added any new technology. He is pretty darn good at manufacturing electric cars, and rockets, cheaper than other companies could, though.

    Unfortunately for him he’s about to discover that the TBM people actually knew what they were doing and he can’t make it cheaper.

    In both electric cars and rockets, he actually had *evidence* that the existing companies were being *stupid* and doing it more expensively than it should be done, *before he started*. I could go into detail about this; it’s very interesting; but I won’t do it here.b

    In the business of civil construction, the existing companies *are* being stupid and doing it more expensively than it should be done, but *the TBMs are not the problem*. The TBMs are quite efficient and cheap. It’s actually other parts of the construction business which are overpriced. So he’s barking up the wrong tree…

    If he could figure out how to do cuts and fills more cheaply, or how to mount bridge foundations more cheaply and quickly, or how to do the “launch box” digging through soil and whatnot more quickly and cheaply, he’d be doing something useful. The TBMs are the part of the process which is already optimized.

  3. See my comments regarding this above; Musk is barking up the wrong tree. There are gross inefficiencies in the civil construction industry, and Musk probably could make a big improvement if he actually *targeted them*, but the TBMs are the single most efficient, cheapest part of the process. He’s simply looking in the wrong place.

  4. They would have been better off just demolishing the elevated highway and rerouting the through traffic onto the I-95 loop.

  5. Yeah. Hyperloop starts to make more sense in a tunnel. (Mind you, it’s still stupid.) Most of the expensive stuff which makes Hyperloop inherently more expensive and less attractive than normal rail is already being done in a tunnel. You already have no view. You already have a pressure-controlled environment.

    Of course, Hyperloop is still stupid. You might as well use full size trains rather than making people crouch; and simple conical steel wheels on steel rails have inherent first-principles physics advantages over the stupid gadgetry they’ve been trying with Hyperloop capsules.

    But it starts to make sense to have a train running in a low-pressure tunnel. I think if Hyperloop ever turns into a real thing, it will simply be a normal train, running on normal tracks, in a tunnel with platform edge doors at the subway stations (all completely standard things which exist now), with air pressure in the tunnel reduced to allow for greater efficiency of travel (the only element of Hyperloop which has any value whatsoever).

  6. Silly man. He’s just not looking in the right place. Tunnelling technology is already very efficient.

    What needs to be improved is perhaps surprising. It costs an absurd amount, and is absurdly slow, to move dirt around for cuts and fills. Planting bridge piers is crazily expensive and slow as well.

  7. Full disclosure: I’m rubbishing Elon’s rather stupid ideas about Hyperloop and tunnels, but I have been heavily invested in TSLA since 2010.

    I think he’s suffering from being busy, running SpaceX and Tesla. He hasn’t bothered to do the intensive research into either the construction industry or the railroad industry which he needed to do — if he had, he’d realize he’s barking up the wrong tree and would figure out how to make cuts and fills cheaper. (Have you ever noticed how inefficient bulldozers and backhoes are?)

  8. Hilarious – A 5x to 10x improvement in TBM tunneling speed absolutely misses the biggest costs in building tunneling.

    TBMs are cheap and fast. The rest of the tunneling ain’t

  9. Neo,

    Been thinking and learning about Elon Musk since this posting a couple of weeks ago.

    Came to the conclusion that he’s trapped in a 1950s ‘Popular Mechanics’ world. It’s pure suburban fantasy writ large.

    This tunnel tangent is another example of his myopia. He got frustrated driving from SpaceX to a LAX terminal – a distance of less than 2 miles.

    The answer to his frustration at being stuck in car congestion is trivially simple. The answer is; Reallocate existing road space to protected bike lanes.

    Bike lanes are 10 times more efficient than Car lanes at moving people.

    Elon Musk’s 2 mile trip would be faster and safer using a bicycle.

    It’s the same with his single family detached home rooftiles as solar panels, just another 1950s Popular Mechanics wet dream.

  10. Lol “laptop” batteries. It’s a little more complicated than strapping them in buddy. Nice try though.

  11. Really?! Next you’ll tell me Steve Jobs didn’t actually create anything or Thomas Edison actually used a network of inventers or maybe that Bill Gates bought out his… Oh wait, that’s how smart people make money. Lol everybody still believes in the myth of lone inventers and the “Eureka Moment”.

  12. Dude,

    I really thought you meant it was laptop batteries and totally wasn’t just making fun to the notion that is an extreme under statement to the actual work and effort it took to improve upon the physical chemistry of the batteries.

    Like totally.

    Lol sheesh. For a smart alike you don’t pick up on sarcasm well.
    It’s alright though I actually did get a laugh out of the comment I was just being a smart alike bro it’s cool.

  13. bolwerk,

    the first subways in the 1870s were pneumatic

    so hyperloop could be described as 150 year old technology gussied up with fancy ribbons

  14. Yeah, certainly the origins of the technology are centuries old. And talk of vacuum chamber guided trains is decades old.

  15. You know what will essen congestion?


    You have no excuse anymor,e bikes have motors now. So drive the thing that is not 2 by 4 meters in size.

  16. we do have bikes with motor support too, soo… why does he not support the state sponsoring everyone a goddamned pedelec?

    I am using a used one from a second hand shop. Its awesome. Perfect for city traffic and in combination with trains i get where i want faster.

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