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Plan Philly reports that a local council member’s move to make sidewalk furniture subject to special approval was rescinded after public outcry.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. High speed rail already solved that, without Hyperloop’s flaws. Also, planes aren’t the problem–cars are.

  2. Well of course it would be nice, but would it be worth the price? I think the obvious answer is “no way”. Who would pay for such a thing?

  3. Cars are a much larger problem than planes, but let’s not negate the issues planes cause, especially noise pollution. High-speed rail can and does replace air travel out to about 500 miles, perhaps further if a few hours extra travel time can be tolerated, but at best it’s only a partial substitute for air travel. If Hyperloop can be made to work, it could virtually eliminate air travel.

  4. Half true. HyperLoop still has to deal with oceans and mountains, and requires way more tubes than HSR requires tracks, and has a very difficult time turning, which makes things challenging in a 3 dimensional world.

  5. We spout platitudes about reducing unnecessary trips, but our policies are aimed squarely at the opposite: we subsidize transportation heavily, so that the users don’t have to pay, so that they’re incented to make more trips than they otherwise would. If we were serious about this approach, we would stop subsidizing roads (or transit) from general taxes, we’d impose congestion tolling wherever there was congestion, and we’d make up for the welfare aspects of current transportation spending (i.e. making sure even poor people can have access to jobs etc) in other ways.

    Until we do this, we’re just running an all-you-can-eat buffet that’s constantly running out, and complaining that it’s peoples’ own fault for eating too much or not eating enough salad while gorging on the meat. Well, maybe it is, but you’re probably not going to change their behavior. So just start charging each person for what they consume.

  6. Chicago has actually had this implemented (to a limited extent) for some time — Upper and Lower streets on top of each other.

  7. Hypothetically? Sure. But if you don’t regulate the surface traffic, it’s highly likely that it’ll fill up to the same congestion, just on two levels now. You just have more people choosing to drive single-occupancy vehicles.

    And if you do regulate the surface traffic– well, you could do that right now, and it would be pretty effective, and you wouldn’t have to go to all the trouble of building a bunch of tunnels.

    If you allow solo drivers to flood the streets, they’ll do it, tunnel or no. The only reason tunnels are even under consideration is that telling solo drivers “no, you can’t drive here” is politically infeasible, so we need to create a huge new infrastructure to maintain their current level of access before we can free up these urban spaces for more efficient modes.

  8. I lived in the area through much of the Big Dig, and commuted to Boston. What appeared to be a transformation was finally having the stupid thing finished and inaccessible parts of Boston reconnectomg. The supposed relief of congestion lasted less than a year as induced demand saturated it, ultimately only moving the pinch points to new locations.

  9. If it’s okay with you that a $2B project transformed into a $15B project, then yes, you are right. I just hope that the rumors I heard about the concrete quality on the Zakim bridge are not true. But we’ll find out in about 20 years.

  10. Along with the idiotic (in pretty much every way) Hyperloop, it’s pretty clear that Musk is dreadfully clueless about transportation—despite his main businesses being transportation related… ><

    [Also despite being a pretty smart guy. The long tradition of smart people getting overconfident and making fools of themselves outside their area of expertise continues.]

    In some ways, that's just meh, I mean there are plenty of clueless people, and there's no way any of this crap will ever be more than text on a website somewhere. What's horrible, though, is the way Musk fanboys (of which there are many) take even his dumbest ideas and propagate them witlessly, which has the potential to waste a lot of money and opportunity.

  11. If we were serious about this approach, we would stop subsidizing roads (or transit) from general taxes

    I agree that we should stop subsidizing roads, but I’ll note that rail fares in Tokyo, where almost all the system is privately funded and run on a for-profit basis, are more or less the same as heavily subsidized rail fares in N.A. cities (and in many cases, less).

    That suggests that the existing fares are in some sense “reasonable,” and what’s really being subsidized here is inefficient American transit construction and operation.

  12. The Hyperloop isn’t local urban or even suburban transit

    Hyperloop’s speed is its good point—it’s every other property it has which makes it look (really) bad. It has low capacity and low flexibility (no switch technology at present, meaning dedicated tubes for every destination pair), and is at this point completely undeveloped high-precision safety-critical technology, which means it’s likely going to need many decades of R&D to come anywhere near an acceptable state for actual deployment.

    All these things are going to drive up the price to something much, much more than the insane low-ball numbers Musk threw out, and it seems pretty likely the speed will have been lowered as well. Things that look awesome on the back-of-napkin often don’t look so awesome once you actually figure out all the details.

    Low-capacity, [very] high-cost, but very high-speed transit mean that if HL ever sees the light of day, it will essentially be a new-generation of Concorde—a very expensive but cool toy for the ultra-rich.

    Yeah, that’s great for Bill Gates, but it really isn’t the sort of thing I think plays a very important part in any transportation system….

    That doesn’t mean somebody should do research on it, but it does mean that nobody in their right mind would make any plans today that assume its existence….

  13. Not sure how the Big Dig was sold, but at least in Chicago, when people propose the idea of putting Lake Shore Drive or the interstates underground, it is definitely proposed in large part on the idea that reunifying disconnected parts of the city and the lakefront is a worthy goal in and of itself. Sure, just eliminating and depaving would be even better in many cases, but it’s simply not always an option.

    Putting interstates underground isn’t going to solve congestion (no interstate expansion will), but interstates are a long way off from simply becoming entirely obsolete, and rectifying the damage caused by reclaiming land above them IMHO could be worth it if the projects are managed correctly. The fact that the Big Dig ballooned from $2B to $15B speaks to the amount of corruption and mismanagement present in any constriction project in the U.S. (mass transit included), and presents a more complicated question than whether tunnel projects are worth it.

  14. Tunnel Boring Machines are now a 100 year old technology that is exceedingly mature. Musk isn’t going to add much innovative value here.

    As another commentator here noted, Musk is in business to sell private cars. He still has 1950’s Robert Moses views on mobility. Sad !

  15. Unlike Lakeshore drive, the big dig replaced an elevated freeway, which was a complete eyesore. The area of Boston where 93 used to be is radically nicer.

    Unlike the Embarcadero in SF (which effectively replaced an elevated freeway), Lakeshore really acts as a freeway – Embarcadero has a lower speed limit and pedestrian crossings every block

  16. 15B bankrupted Massachusetts ? What’s your position on CAHSR?

    The project process is rightly the butt of jokes but downtown where 93 used to be is amazing. I don’t consider it “priceless” but it’s awesome nonetheless

  17. You could even do it by lane on a multi-lane expressway. And with cars like Musk builds you could do the congestion pricing real time. Average speed just dropped, ok then up the rate per mile until enough people change to another lane. At the same moment different miles of the road could be charging different rates.

    Call it economic tunneling. Musk can always afford the fastest lane. And since the latest auto-pilot programming from Tesla allows speeding a version of congestion pricing could be created where if you were willing to pay enough speeds of say 120 mph or greater could be accommodated. You might find your car driving you along at your preset rate of say $10 per mile and 80 mph when suddenly your car changes your lane because the rate just jumped to $123 per mile to allow a 140 mph car to pass through. After it passed you return to the lane at your prescribed rate of $10 per mile and 80 mph.

  18. A lot of travel consumption is involuntary. Charging more for it won’t necessarily change behavior. For example, quite a bit of mechanized travel is getting to work or school. We can easily fix this yesterday by allowing any employees who can work from home to do so, and by having children go to schools in their neighborhoods (or even have them learn at home via courses taught online). Unfortunately, the power to do these things lies not with the people who actually travel to work or school, but with employers and departments of education. Employers have been particularly resistant to having people work at home, even for jobs where they’re sitting at a terminal all day. As for schools, building/operating/maintaining schools creates a lot of union jobs which these unions will fight tooth and nail to keep, even if there are better ways to educate children than conventional schools. So if we want to change things, going at the user only works for trips which are strictly voluntary. To do any better we need a sea change in the attitudes of both employers and education systems.

  19. What is suburb-centric about Tesla, Hyperloop or tunnels? Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy and Hyperloop’s mission is to make interstate travel faster, more sustainable and cheaper. I’m starting to think that this blog is really just a place for people to voice naive, misinformed outrage. I’m as big of a devotee of new urbanism as anyone on here, but I also think we need to care about facts rather than sounding off on things we don’t know about and decrying every new transit venture as motorism on steroids.

  20. Electric cars are almost 200 years old. Elon hasn’t added any innovative technology there either, has he? 🙂 Do you not think it would be a better idea to have a fleet of 100 million autonomous electric cars on the road instead of 250 million cars driven by dumb-asses on Snapchat (who kill 35,000+ people per year)?

  21. I think the real value here might come from less expensive tunneling technology, even if the Hyperloop is never built. That could mean less expensive subways, moving expressways underground in cities, even building tunnels for bikes so they can avoid weather and delays from traffic controls.

    The biggest problem with the hyperloop is its emphasis on small vehicles, which Musk seems to like given that his primary business is selling cars. The maglev in a vacuum tube idea has a lot of merit as a means to replace air travel if we go with larger, conventional train-sized vehicles which hold hundreds or thousands of people. These would serve mainly larger cities. They could be part of a larger transport system where you might do a trip from a smaller town by using local transit to high-speed rail. HSR would take you to a large city where you would board the maglev and go to the city closest to your final destination. From there you would take HSR and then local transit. Overall, the trip could be faster than flying, especially if the maglevs run at up to a few thousand mph. Those going to and from large cities obviously don’t need the HSR connections. They can do local transit-maglev-local transit. This could put major city pairs in the continental US at most a few hours travel time apart regardless of location.

    Low-capacity, [very] high-cost, but very high-speed transit mean that if HL ever sees the light of day, it will essentially be a new-generation of Concorde—a very expensive but cool toy for the ultra-rich.

    If the cost can’t be reduced to that of an airline ticket or less, then any maglev system, whether Hyperloop or larger vehicles, is pretty much pointless. As we’ve seen with Concorde, there just isn’t enough demand for premium-priced very high-speed transit to make it worthwhile.

    Another question we might ask here is do we even need to travel faster than high-speed rail in the first place? I think it’s a valid question. If you had good HSR in the US, then even very long trips like NYC to LA can be done in perhaps 15 hours, give or take. This basically means boarding a train after dinner, sleeping on board, and arriving maybe around lunch time the following day. In terms of actual time spent traveling you’re only really talking 7 or 8 hours given that you’ll be spending 8 hours sleeping regardless. The only difference between HSR and taking a plane to LA (assuming the same noon arrival time) is that you board the train the night before instead of catching a red eye flight. To me this hardly makes the time savings of the plane worthwhile.Basically, the plane lets you sleep at home but you still have to wake up very early and rush to the airport right after you wake up.

    Or to put all this more succinctly, the fact we can do something technically doesn’t always mean we really need to. Very high travel speeds only really save significant amounts of time on very long trips. However, those trips are a small percentage of trips. Moreover, a vast number of them are purely optional. They might not even be made at all if we didn’t make them so convenient. We might be better off if we stuck only to HSR for any overland trips and ships for trips across oceans. People will still travel, but they’ll do it a heck of a lot less.

  22. I have several thousand samples in my spam folder if you like. The brain enhancing drug purportedly also used by the genius Donald Trump is my personal favorite.

  23. Hyperloop aims to connect city centers. It has nothing to do with ex-urbs. I’d encourage you to read more about what is actually being proposed rather than building very ineffective straw men to voice your disagreement.

  24. Sorry but taking a Lotus Elan and adding laptop batteries isn’t ‘totally changing the game’

    TBMs are not going to be radically improved anytime soon. Believe you me, TBM technology and know-how just went through a austounding period of innovative.

  25. This is an idea floated by Ayn Rand acolytes at the Reason Foundation last spring, Estimated cost of their proposal, $750 Billion. Got to love tax and spend Objectivist like @elonmusk.

  26. Hyper loop is actually something I believe is potentially transformative.

    Tesla and Tunnels to promote driving not so much

  27. Wow, I’m glad to see someone other then myself promoting congestion pricing. This is the only way to start efficiently using the tremendously valuable road network that we have built. We cannot stop growth, and we cannot squeeze more vehicles onto the existing road network, so by pricing we can shift the transit methods from single passengers vehicles to vans, shuttles, buses, trains based on the price of the corridor. The transportation corridor value (based on dynamic pricing) will determine the appropriate vehicle to keep the individual user price low. This will foster innovation is point-to-point shuttle services, on-demand multi-occupant services, and other new transportation modes that will lower the user cost. The current approach of heavily subsidizing transportation to support inefficient transportation methods is a failure.

  28. Good work comparing apples to oranges! You should try exercising some intellectual honesty from time to time. I’ve found it to be very beneficial in conversations likes these. 🙂 You know it’s 2017 and not 2010, right? Tesla has three cars available now (soon to be four)! They’re all very highly-lauded by drivers and critics alike. Some folks even go so far as to say that they’re the highest rated cars of all time (Consumer Reports, Amazon, Car & Driver, Kelley Blue Book, etc.). But, you know, Teslas are just Lotus knockoffs with laptop batteries instead of combustion engines…

    Also, I feel so lucky to have stumbled upon the ultimate soothsayer of technological advancements in tunnel-building! How gracious you are to gift us your wisdom that nothing will change in the future!

  29. everything will change in the future.

    Tesla is not particularly technically innovative and never has been. Musk is a great showman and certainly knows how to sell smoke and mirrors.

    This started with my premise that TBMs will not be radically innovated

  30. Tesla is focused on entrenching a lifestyle built around the car. Even the driverless Tesla concept is centered and the everybody owning a car.

  31. They did start out as a car company and as of right now the bulk of their revenue comes from car sales. It’s important to note that cars are not the endgame for Tesla (like a search engine is not the end game for Google)… they also just dropped the Motors from Tesla Motors.

    They’ve spent millions on utility-scale battery installations and new solar projects to accelerate the use of sustainable energy worldwide. They also built the biggest factory in the world to make batteries to curb mankind’s use of fossil fuels. I hate cars too, but I want to give credit where it’s due. Tesla is doing a lot to make the world a better place.

  32. I know the TBM industry reasonably well. It’s a typical capital goods business with steady 1-3% improvement y.o.y.

  33. Musk hasn’t ever really invested in anything that doesn’t make money. His tunnel scheme for cars probably wont be free. Toll roads don’t suffer from ‘induced demand’ congestion because they just keep raising the toll until demand falls to a point where free flow traffic persists.

  34. the big dig in boston is a huge success. undreground highways are transfromational. stop wasting money on new bus lines, BRT, and bike lanes. actually spend money of things that will change the transportation paradigm and lessen congestion, such as underground highways or subways. musk is right on target. of course he is visionary, whule streetsblog is stuck in 1900

  35. I don’t disagree that congestion pricing works, and I’m not against it in principle. But it’s regressive and without practical alternatives (bikes, mass transit, etc.) available at low-cost, it’s unjust.

  36. Sure.

    My go-to example of how pervasive it is– BART provides 46,000 parking spaces, almost all below market-rate, and even further below the opportunity cost of the incredibly valuable land they sit on. In other words, our “transit subsidies” are being used to subsidize car traffic.

    In general, one of the biggest subsidies to automobility is all the rules about how private developments have to limit density (largely because of traffic concerns) and provide parking. These rules create an environment in which any sort of mass transit is necessarily going to be inconvenient, cost-ineffective, or both. Which then necessitates that the transit is subsidized.

  37. There’s an industry which is ideally suited to telecommuting: Silicon Valley. Just about all the work people do can theoretically be done from home. They also have the expertise to build the systems to support telecommuting. Finally, they have every incentive to put it into practice, because traffic in the area is horrible, and the cost of land for both facilities for the companies and housing and services for the workers is insane.

    And yet, it largely hasn’t happened. Traffic continues to be terrible. Why do you think that is?

  38. Why? Because bosses are paranoid that the work won’t get done if they’re not there to watch over their employees. Of course, for most jobs it quickly becomes apparent when an employee isn’t doing their job but old management habits die hard.

  39. So how would you convince them to change? A commission to evaluate jobs, which decides who is to be banned from driving during rush hour? If tens of thousands of dollars in savings per employee isn’t enough to get companies to do it, what is?

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