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Plan Philly reports that a local council member’s move to make sidewalk furniture subject to special approval was rescinded after public outcry.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. Couldn’t tunnels hypothetically clear up transit congestion and free up urban spaces for mixed use? I understand the argument here, I’m more asking what the possible benefits of Elon’s plans (which haven’t even been explained yet) might be.

  2. The real problem is that you eventually need to come out of the tunnels to get wherever you’re going, unless of course part of Musk’s plan involves duplicating the local street grid underground, complete with underground parking and access to buildings. While not a horrible idea in concept the problem is the enormous cost. If we could magically build this underground system with robotic labor for perhaps 1% of what it might cost us now, the idea has merit. However, you’re still facing the problem that single occupancy vehicles lack space efficiency. If you’re going to go through the expense of making an underground grid, you can reduce your costs radically by using larger vehicles.

    That said, if he invents low-cost tunneling technology it may indeed by more useful for his Hyperloop proposal than for local transportation. The Hyperloop idea has merit if the technical issues can be worked out. We need to replace airplanes for long distance travel. They’re too noisy, don’t stop in city centers, create massive noise footprints, pollute the air, and present a potential terrorist weapon.

  3. I agree. In this case they are talking about a tunnel that goes under a city it depends on whether it bypasses the city or connects to city streets.

  4. The tunnels are for transit. He’s already made that much clear.

    Also, that’s a tunnel for a very wide highway. Granted that the tunnel that Elon’s digging is 50-100 feet wide, but some subway tunnels are that wide and their entrances/exits have much smaller geographic footprints.

    One other big benefit to consider in this whole conversation is possibility that these tunnels will be used for hyperloop transit. If that’s the case, it really only becomes a more energy/time/ecologically-efficient public transit option that will get more cars off the road… that’s a win for everyone IMO.

  5. More people need to listen to Musk when he says, “We have no idea what we’re doing. I want to be clear about that.”

  6. Traffic (or traffic congestion) = too many cars. The one proven way to adjust this high demand is through pricing. Congestion pricing works. It works for the main goal of reducing congestion, and it works to effectively create more demand AND provide a direct source of funding. We need more people demanding #CongestionPricing. Work on a policy that adjusts for a goal of flow of traffic, not one limited to a set price or price cap.

  7. if it is transit, then this could be awesome. I haven’t seen him state that it is transit, only allude to the possibility of hyper loop. Which we know too little about from an operations standpoint to know whether it can meet relatively short distance travel across a metro area. What are loading unloading times, how does this affect potential headways if travel time is shorter than loading, do stations consist of staging areas where vehicle exits the vacuum tube in order to load passengers?

    Building a tunnel without knowing how you’ll get into or out of it is the most likely path to displacement, since your route isn’t dictated by where & how your stations will be developed. The uncertainty is high, and this is where we shouldn’t trust a big talking billionaire.

  8. That is yet to be seen, electric cars still require cities of pavement, & he is advising Trump. In net total his contributions to a sustainable future might end up being marginal based on amount invested compared to many of us. I will not trust, I will wait for a clear plan, so far there isn’t one. Just fanciful claims with few details.

  9. Yep, ideas and experiments are great, but everyone rushes to assume that he has the next big thing before there is any evidence.

  10. Your skepticism is fair. There are obviously a ton of details that have yet to be ironed out. I think I find myself on the side of those defending him for doing what he is attempting to do… which is to accelerate the use of sustainable energy and make humans a multi-planetary species.

    Further, listening to him and what he says about what he’s doing on Trump’s advisory council is a lot more reliable of a source than the myriad of news outlets who are paid to create conflict where none exists.


    Full disclosure: I’m a huge Elon fanboy and I’ve benefited a lot personally from the TSLA stock I bought in 2013. 🙂

  11. And, of course, moving the street grid underground ultimately means that we’ll have congestion both at ground level and underground. So that’s nice. 🙂

  12. Sadly, the same applies to most American transit projects. the idea is always to add transit as additional capacity, instead of eliminating the need to travel be removing stupid zoning laws and building mixed use neighborhoods on existing parking lots.

  13. I don’t think that the hyperloop is only concerned with additional capacity. To use your argument about travel distances, they might actually be more cost-effective (and better for the environment and cities) in the long run if you compare them with the mode of transportation they’re attempting to replace… airplanes.

    I think it’s shortsighted to write off Elon Musk’s first foray into tunnel-building. There were plenty of folks who wrote off his first forays into online banking in 1998, rocket-building in 2002 and auto-manufacturing in 2003. Most of those naysayers are conspicuously silent on those topics these days.

  14. I see great potential in hyperloops and tunnels. To counter induced demand building, leasing, sharing, and driving highway capable narrow cars is clearly the best way to proceed for all city, parking, roads, highways, tunnels, and loops.

    I assume Duranton and Turner would approve currently standard thin bike design vs. side by side seated novelty family bikes for the vast majority of rides on bike lanes even though their thinner width induces more bike riding. The same design thinking goes for the width of cars on available road width.

    Induced demand or not, thin cars on thin parking spaces, roads, tunnels, and loops makes a lot of sense. It would be fantastic to travel the speed of an airplane in a vehicle the width of a motorcycle that parks neatly outside your dwelling.

  15. Other option is to build/lease/sell highway capable single-width cars for city,parking, highways, roads, tunnels, and loops. Like bicycles, single-width design is a lot better than side by side seated, and it decreases the effect of induced demand.

  16. Given how the Big Dig effectively bankrupted the Commonwealth of Massachusetts* perhaps Elon will spend his stock gains on these projects, run out of money and then leave us alone.

    *Most of the cost was transferred to the MBTA Debt load, which is why it is in the financial mess it finds itself in

  17. Also, you can reduce the need to travel by doing things to encourage more telecommuting along with eliminating unnecessary business trips. In fact, before we ever talking about adding capacity or expanding transportation, we need to ask ourselves how many of these trips are really necessary in the first place, as in society couldn’t function well without them.

  18. I don’t believe Musk is interested in improving tunnel digging technology for underground roads, he’s interested in it for the hyperloop, which wouldn’t involve cars at all.

  19. What Eric Griswold said is accurate, but that’s not what I was talking about. It wasn’t even a dig at Musk actually, only that PR surrounding him usually involves trotting out some terrible idea and namedropping Musk.

  20. That’s really the point of the Hyperloop—to replace what amounts to an awful mode of transport in terms of noise, pollution, energy use, passenger comfort with one which is better in every way. The Hyperloop isn’t local urban or even suburban transit, nor was it designed to be. You couldn’t even reach its designed cruising speed over a typical suburban commute of s few tens of miles.

  21. Right, because all those folks clogging the Bay Area freeways and spending hours commuting each way so they can live in a more affordable area really need to speak up and ask if they could work from home or bike to work.

  22. I agree on the hyperloop to a certain extent. Anyway it makes more sense than a subway to an airport surrounded by parking lots and oversized streets. BRT would do fine.

  23. As I’ve said a few times now about this, Musk doesn’t seem to get that all you’d achieve with this is shifting the nexus points of traffic to where the tunnel portals are. It’s not solving the fact that, eventually, those cars are going to have to go above ground. The only scenario where this really makes any kind of sense would be if for some reason you have to build a highway and it’s somehow not an option to avoid the city. Then, sure, tunneling under the city is better than converting part of a downtown into a freeway, I guess. But you’d have to make sure that, other than emergency vehicle portals that could also be used to evacuate the tunnel if needed, there was no vehicle access within the city limits.

    So again, not ALWAYS a dumb idea, it’s just hard to imagine that there won’t normally be more practical alternatives.

  24. Musk chose to live in the hills above UCLA and now is stuck in traffic going to his plant south of LAX. Maybe Elon could have picked a residence in the Redondo area instead. Seems like poor planning by the great one.

  25. Let us not forget that Mr. Musk is very much in the business of selling automobiles to individuals. So from his perspective, anything that detracts from the “appeal” of owning and operating an automobile, including but not limited to one-car/one-person induced congestion, is a problem to be overcome.

    Let us also not forget that America’s automobile-centric landscape is a direct consequence of post-war policy decisions that the public increasingly want undone.

  26. Most tunneling equipment is German, and most tunneling goes on in China.

    This is no exaggeration. Small German engineering companies totally dominate the industry. They invented the all-in-one equipment that lays track , bores the hole, moves the material out ad installs prefab wall sections.

    And China has literally more than half the world’s tunneling projects going on. Look what they have done in the last 10 years.


  27. “Cure” traffic? Oh no no, he’s a technocrat, so the proper term would be “solve” traffic 😛

  28. The Big Dig wasn’t a boondoggle. It transformed Boston and will continue to be a benefit for that City well beyond a memory of the cost of the project.

  29. Or located his plant near the green line station at least. In his enviro-techno-publicity centric world, nothing could be better than riding the green line to work.

  30. Hyperloop has several fundamental flaws–needing a ton of tubes for east destination pair (or more, because capacity matters), not being able to curve, thus needing to take very expensive routes, not being good at serving intermediate destinations, etc.
    PS. Tesla has been a failure.

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