Elon Musk is a man of many, many interests. Lately, to go along with cars, space, and AI, he has added mass transit to the pile. After launching the Boring Company last year (via a Twitter musing about terrible Los Angeles traffic), the Tesla and SpaceX CEO began digging an experimental tunnel in his own backyard, the parking lot of SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
He plans, he says, to construct networks of tunnels throughout cities with faster, more efficient boring technology. The tunnels could carry individual cars or eight- to sixteen-passenger “pods” on electric skates, traveling up to 150 mph. (Longer tunnels, between cities, would be perfect for hyperloop, another interest.)
Less than a year after its founding, the Boring Company is already talking about taking its mass transit solution to real, live cities. In July, Musk announced that he had “verbal government approval” to build a hyperloop between Washington, DC and New York City, which could carry commuters between the two in less than 30 minutes. (A White House official later suggested that he had, perhaps, given Musk the wrong idea, and that the project had not been approved, verbally or otherwise.) In November, Musk said the company would bid on a project to build a new, faster rail link between downtown Chicago and O’Hare Airport. And in early December, the Boring Company released a map showing a proposed tunnel network in Los Angeles, which could transport both private cars and shared pods between Long Beach Airport in the south, Santa Monica in the west, Dodger Stadium in the east, and Sherman Oaks in the north.
All of which casts a curious light on the fact that last week, Musk revealed he’s no great fan of mass transit. The whole sharing space with other humans thing? It’s kind of icky.
“There is this premise that good things must be somehow painful,” he said onstage at a Tesla event on the sidelines of the Neural Information Processing Systems Conference in Long Beach, California, in response to an audience question about his take on public transit and urban sprawl. “I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time.”
“It’s a pain in the ass,” he continued. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”
When the audience member responded that public transportation seemed to work in Japan, Musk shot back, “What, where they cram people in the subway? That doesn’t sound great.” The CEO reiterated his preference for individual transportation, ie, private cars. Preferably, a private Tesla. (Tesla offered those attending Musk’s talk the chance to test drive a Model S.)
A question, then: Does a public transit builder actually have to love the idea of public transportation? Maybe not. But there’s a reason residents of cities with struggling transit systems (like New York and Tampa) get mad when they realize the people overseeing those systems don’t actually use them. How can someone fix problems they can’t see?
A Boring Company spokesperson says Musk was criticizing today’s public transportation systems, not the idea of mass transit itself, and also noted that the company isn’t seeking public funding for its work. “The point is that while mass transit is generally painful, it doesn’t have to be that way and it should be better,” the spokesperson continued. “That’s why The Boring Company exists—to increase the happiness of both drivers and mass transit users by reducing traffic and creating an efficient and affordable public transportation system.”
There are problems with mass transit, and no doubt Musk, with his knack for innovative thinking, is a welcome presence in the field. But his comments last week didn’t focus on the standard roster of travel problems, like delays, crime, and grime. Musk criticized the basic tenets of public transit, the compromises fundamental to a system that serves a community, like set routes, schedules, and the presence of other human beings.
To bust traffic in cities like Los Angeles, Musk proposes to build a system of tunnels 30 to 40 layers below the ground, vast enough to carry all commuters with ease, even during peak rush hour. Transportation planners say this plan does not account for induced demand, the phenomenon where drivers take more and more trips to absorb unused road space. And tunnel engineers seriously doubt Musk can improve tunneling speeds at least 14 times over, as he has promised. “What does Musk think, we’re all idiots?” one tunneling industry veteran told WIRED this summer.
Whatever Musk’s feelings, the Boring Company has pressed forward on plans to build tunnels in Maryland, Chicago, and Los Angeles. (Musk boasted this week of selling 35,000 branded Boring Company hats, for $20 a pop—a tidy $700,000 in funding. His Twitter bio now reads “Hat Salesman”.) In October, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced the Boring Company had begun work on a hyperloop to connect Baltimore and Washington, DC. A spokesperson for Hogan’s office said the majority of the tunnels would be built under existing state highways, and that Maryland expected to pay very little for the infrastructure project.
Correspondence between the Boring Company and the Maryland Department of Transportation, obtained by WIRED via a records request, suggest Musk’s company plans to use pods in these tunnels. MDOT has granted the Boring Company a conditional permit to build two transportation tunnels underneath the Baltimore Washington Parkway, provided the company gives the state detailed ground settlement monitoring plans, tunnel segment drawings, and safety plans, among other documents. The tunnels will stretch 10.1 miles in all.
In Chicago, Musk plans to bid for the opportunity to construct a long-planned high-speed transit link between the downtown and O’Hare International Airport. Today, the trip takes about 40 minutes by train; Mayor Rahm Emanuel hopes to cut that time in half. Emanuel’s office did not reply to requests for comment on the city’s plans with Musk.
Meanwhile, planning continues in Los Angeles County, home of the Boring Company, its experimental tunnel, and its twin tunnel boring machines, named Godot and Line-Storm. Last month, the boring operation filed an application with the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering to build a 6.5-mile, proof-of-concept tunnel between the San Fernando Valley and Westwood, a continuation of a two-mile route already under construction in Hawthorne. The Boring Company has said its Los Angeles tunnels could carry individual cars or pods on electric skates. A map released by the Boring Company shows ambitious tunneling plans criss-crossing throughout Los Angeles county.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told Forbes this summer that the city had “almost announced a partnership” between the Boring Company and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but that the plan was in a holding pattern as the company decided whether to bid on a Metro project. Garcetti’s office did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.
Musk does seem to be a fan of carsharing, if not actually sharing physical space with strangers. In his Master Plan Part Deux, a 2016 outline of what’s to come for electric car company Tesla, the inventor indicated he wants to launch his own car-sharing service. Once Teslas reach full autonomy, he wrote, their owners should be able to add their vehicles to a shared fleet and “have it generate income for you while you’re at work or on vacation, significantly offsetting and at times potentially exceeding the monthly loan or lease cost.” He says this scheme—“like AirBnB for your car”—could make private car ownership accessible to those with limited incomes. But a totally autonomous Tesla doesn’t exist yet, though Musk promised one would make a hands-off trip across the United States by the end of this year. In the meantime, transit commuters, enjoy your cramming.
Tom Simonite contributed reporting.