Elon Musk's outsize transportation projects are about as civic-minded as this "WonkyWheels and SmartMat" play set. / PlaSmart

The Musk of Success, Choking Our Cities

Elon Musk’s new hobby? Privatizing the underground

Elon Musk's outsize transportation projects are about as civic-minded as this "WonkyWheels and SmartMat" play set. / PlaSmart
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Elon Musk’s latest, possibly fictional venture is an audacious plan to vanquish traffic. The Boring Company, as Musk has christened his new corporate outfit (prepare for loads of bad puns), will create a latticework of underground tunnels through which cars will travel on high-speed “skates.” Simply drive your car—or let your self-driving Tesla do it for you—onto a street-level elevator platform, and you will be quickly lowered down to a subterranean rail that will shoot you and your vehicle around at 125 miles per hour.

Musk calls it a “3D network of tunnels” designed “to alleviate congestion,” a problem he’s described as “soul-destroying.” For a billionaire constantly on the move, traffic is more than a dreaded inefficiency; it cuts somewhere deeper, more existential. It deprives him of time that, like another piece of property, is rightfully his. “It takes away so much of your life,” Musk said mournfully at a recent TED event. “It’s horrible. It’s particularly horrible in LA.” Under his plan, the thirty-plus minute journey from Westwood to LAX would be reduced to as little as five or six minutes. Submit yourself to a dizzyingly fast below-ground ride, and you too will find whole blocks of your time restored, if not your equilibrium. (The Boring Company’s video of its test track comes with a seizure warning.)

A rich man’s hobby can have serious consequences for the rest of us.

This being an Elon Musk production, the tech maverick has promised beaucoup synergies and savings, with innovations cropping up all over the production line. Musk predicts a “ten-fold improvement” in the cost of tunneling, partly by making the tunnels narrow and running the boring machines harder. (The Boring Company has already acquired a number of tunneling machines and is touting open positions for everything from crane operators to geologists.) Eventually, he says, his underground carscape will be cheaper than traveling by bus—presuming you can afford a car in the first place.

That stray reference to bus travel is about the only time you’re likely to hear Musk refer to public transit of any kind. From his glittering, myopia-constricted perch, Musk is somehow able to propose a vast underground network of tunnels without even mentioning the word “subway.”

Sure, it’s doubtful that a paid-up member of the ultra-rich, accustomed to traveling by private plane, would ever deign to ride the metro alongside the hoi polloi. Still, the oversight is surprising given that Los Angeles, where Musk is building a test tunnel near the offices of SpaceX, his rocketry firm, is in the midst of a massive infrastructure and public-works campaign that is reshaping the city through the gradual rollout of new subway and light rail lines. The city is slowly restoring the kind of public transit it last had sixty years ago, when LA’s streetcars were demolished at the urging of automobile companies, inaugurating the city’s modern era of traffic-choked highways. But Musk has given little indication that he’s thought through the civic implications of his own proposed road network. The Boring Company’s FAQ discusses earthquakes, the inherent virtues of tunnels, and little else, and while it boasts that the finished tunnels will be able to transport “goods, and/or people” in addition to cars, you wouldn’t know it from the company’s flashy CGI marketing video, which features expensive-looking sports cars popping in and out of the tunnels like pampered groundhogs.

By Musk’s own admission, this project takes up just 2 to 3 percent of his time, which is otherwise occupied with his interests in electric cars, solar panels, space travel, and fatuous pontificating about the glories of our tech-enabled future. “This is basically interns and people doing it part-time,” Musk explained in the TED interview.

Then why should we take it seriously? The answer might be that a rich man’s hobby can have serious consequences for the rest of us. And there’s little doubt that a credulous media will do Musk’s promotional work for him. True to form, the tech press has gobbled up Musk’s bizarre plan without raising a single eyebrow in skepticism. Every time Musk posts a new video on Twitter or uploads a photo of a boring machine to Instagram, this material—advertising for a mogul’s novelty startup—is immediately repurposed for enthusiastic posts on TechCrunch, Business Insider, The Verge, and other content-hungry tech-biz chroniclers. Through these repeated acts of petty propaganda, Musk has developed a reputation as a Tony Stark–like man of action—rather than, say, an endlessly self-aggrandizing, union-busting executive whose empire rests on billions in government subsidies and canny acts of self-dealing, like engineering the merger of his money-losing car company with his even-more-money-losing solar company.

Tech utopia or class dystopia? A careless ping-ponging between the two seems to be Elon Musk’s specialty.

Musk’s boring project also stems from a particular vision of how cities should work and who they should serve. Nowhere in his excited homilies to ultrafast underground travel do we hear anything about the role of mass transit in city life or the need to serve a public that includes poor people. Who decides where the tunnels go? Who pays to integrate the car elevators with existing road systems? Is building out a vast new infrastructure really the answer to traffic, especially when experience shows that adding more roads and highways tends to lead to more driving, exacerbating traffic?

None of these picayune details seems to matter to Musk. There is only the question of getting from point A to B as fast as possible. As Andrew Mondschein, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Virginia and co-author of a 2015 study on Los Angeles traffic, told me, Musk’s tunnel project treats the city “as just one big network” without showing much concern for what happens between a starting point and a destination. “That’s fundamentally what I hear him arguing,” Mondschein said, “that space no longer matters.” If anything, Musk’s tunnels might induce people with cars to travel more than they need to, especially if they are encouraged to see the tunnels as something akin to a Star Trek transporter, a fun method of zapping across town in minutes.

Musk also fundamentally misunderstands the phenomenon of congestion, which Mondschein, for his part, describes as “an expression of the fact that there’s a lot of things between where you start a trip and where you end a trip.” Congestion can be frustrating—and certainly something that urban planners should try to mitigate—but it can also be a sign that your city isn’t composed only of rare oases, with stretches of barren desert in between. Despite its fabled reputation for sprawl, LA is according to Mondschein, “one of the densest cities in the United States.” But it makes little sense to “double down on auto-mobility” at a time when city officials are trying to encourage alternative means of transportation, like the forthcoming regional connector, a $1.7-billion light rail expansion that will facilitate travel across four of the city’s existing metro lines. (The connector also comes bearing the kind of civic-minded accoutrements, like public art displays, that are unlikely to be found in any Musk-led production.)

Yes, there is something enticing about the grandeur of Musk’s plans. And yes, we should still be wary. At a time when cities are hobbled by budget deficits and mass transit is losing out to Uber and Lyft, a billionaire’s sci-fi-tinged scheme to eliminate traffic can capture the adoration of the media, the ear of city planners, and the imagination of the rest of us. Even Mondschein, the urbanist, saw some appeal in the Boring Company. But he was also careful to sound a note of caution: “It’s hard to say whether it’s a utopian or a dystopian vision.” Tech utopia or class dystopia? A careless ping-ponging between the two seems to be Musk’s specialty.

Jacob Silverman’s book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, is published by HarperCollins.

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