It’s been nearly a year since Elon Musk proclaimed on Twitter that “Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging . . .” Since then, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX has actually starting doing just that. After revealing The Boring Company in February, Musk released an animated video in May showing how the system would work. By late October, Musk had released a photo from inside a tunnel and announced that a second digging machine was being built. And just this month, the company raised $300,000 by selling hats with its logo on the front, and a reporter for the Southern California News Group tweeted out a photo of a truck hauling a giant portion of the tunnel that will eventually run through Los Angeles, and offer commuters a speedy way to circumvent what Musk has described as the city’s “soul-destroying” traffic.
L.A.’s notoriously gridlocked drivers will undoubtedly relish any plan to ease their traffic woes. But the tunnels being built by The Boring Company will also be a big time-saver for one commuter in particular: Musk himself.
An analysis of the project’s path shows that it conveniently runs from the headquarters of SpaceX and then winds about 20 miles north, passing right by the enclave of Bel Air–where Musk owns a collection of five tightly clustered homes. Should the tunnel project go according to the entrepreneur’s plan, his trip between Bel Air and SpaceX, which in current traffic conditions easily takes more than an hour, would be shortened to as little as six minutes. His car (like many others) would enter the tunnel via a platform, which would lower it, elevator-style, into the tunnel. The platform, called a “skate,” would then shoot through the tunnel, carrying the car at a speed of 130 mph.
In a statement to Fast Company, The Boring Co. said that the location of the tunnel has nothing to do with proximity to Musk’s properties; its starting point near SpaceX was chosen because the company owns the land and could therefore start digging into it immediately.
The proximity of Musk’s super project to his own life’s needs might raise some eyebrows, but he’s far from the first CEO to make such a move. In his 1988 book City: Rediscovering the Center, urbanist and journalist William H. Whyte mapped out the location of 38 companies that had left New York City for the Connecticut suburbs “to better meet the quality-of-life needs of their employees.” He circled on a map where the new headquarters were located in white, and the house where the current CEO lived at the time of the proposed move in black. The average distance between the two changed from nearly 40 miles to just 8 miles, on average. Perhaps coincidentally, there were also two country clubs located in the places where all the circles he plotted intersected.
This also wouldn’t be the first time that Musk’s ire over traffic congestion became a public benefit. In 2013, he personally funneled $50,000 toward an effort to widen the 405, which connects his home in Bel Air at the northern end of Los Angeles, to SpaceX office in Hawthorne, farther south. As with nearly all highway widening projects, this had the reverse of the intended effect and incentivized more people to drive. It’s a simple and well-known economic phenomenon called “induced demand,” which holds that increasing the supply of something (space for cars, in this case) will encourage more people to use it–a concept that you might hope someone designing new car tunnels would be more cognizant of.
The surface-level appeal of The Boring Company’s tunnel is undeniable, and not only to Musk. It stretches from the 405-freeway off-ramp for the Los Angeles International Airport (and right on the other side of the freeway from the SpaceX offices), to the intersection of the 101–another critical junction for commuters. The stretch of the 405 freeway that runs through L.A. is the busiest interstate in the country, moving over 379,000 commuters at a crawl every day–and Musk has put himself in a unique position of being able to do something about it. He envisions an entry point for cars every mile or so; cyclists and pedestrians could make use of the tunnel at those points, too, by entering a capsule that will zoom them along to their desired exit.
The fact that the tunnel project will be entirely privately funded (presumably with Musk’s money, though The Boring Co. spokesperson, in the Los Angeles Times, didn’t elaborate) certainly gives Musk the leeway to construct it exactly where it would benefit him most. While the completion of the project is still contingent on city approval, it’s Musk and his Boring Co., at the end of the day, who are making the decisions. But a billionaire’s public transportation dreams are perhaps not the most viable or productive for the region.
Even though the tunnel seems to present an alternative to the jam-packed freeway above it, Musk’s project runs the risk of repeating a version of the mistake made by widening the 405. What if the novelty of the tunnel, instead of limiting traffic, just encourages more people to get in their cars to travel, albeit at a higher speed?
The Los Angeles region would benefit more from a system that reduces, not induces, demand for private-car usage. A recent Los Angeles Times editorial advocated for more traffic tolls, while others argue that the region needs a stronger mass transit system to support the transition away from private cars.
But even if Musk is launching this endeavor out of a sense of altruism, a belief that he alone can save L.A. from its traffic woes, he’s off the mark. An idea, borne out of frustration, to “just start digging,” is not urban planning. Musk is bankrolling his way around a rigorous design and planning processes that could actually lead to a comprehensive fix for the region, and his dream for a six-minute commute could hinder any more viable–albeit less sexy–progress the city is aiming to make.