Can we please let the Boring Company die already?
Elon Musk’s transportation network will never be realized
On Friday, Elon Musk graced Twitter with an update on his Boring Company transportation plans. While his mentions were surely filled with the fawning replies of his cult followers, that doesn’t mean that the Boring Company is now a project that should be fervently backed by transit supporters.
Musk initially conceived of the Boring Company to prove that tunneling could be much less expensive because he wanted to use a mass system of tunnels to relieve traffic congestion and perpetuate the dominance of automobiles. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that Musk wants to position himself as the North American leader in electric vehicles and is trying to shield himself from competition by pushing Trump to slap tariffs on Chinese EVs.
However, the very premise of the Boring Company is flawed. Musk claims that tunneling is a technology problem, when the high cost of US infrastructure projects has more to do with bad contractors, outdated union agreements, and other issues in the planning process. Tunneling is only a small portion of the cost of infrastructure projects, and metro lines built in Madrid, Seoul, and Stockholm have already reached Musk’s cost target — without using non-unionized labor.
Putting the flawed premise of the Boring Company aside for a moment, let’s look at the latest update in this saga and why Musk’s tweets still miss the fundamental issues with his plan.
“Fairness” is apparently at the heart of the new Boring Company transportation plan, but I find that hard to believe. Is the prioritization of pedestrians and cyclists an improvement over the car-focused system that Musk was initially planning? I guess so, but it still doesn’t change the fundamental problems with his concept of replicating the worst aspects of the the road network underground and having a bunch of small elevators that will become obvious bottlenecks.
#1. How is the prioritization supposed to work?
Musk claims that pedestrians and cyclists will be prioritized over cars, but how will this happen in practice? Both will be able to enter the tunnels, but how does the system know to let pedestrians and cyclists go first?
It’s possible there will be separate elevators for foot and vehicle traffic, since the initial plans showed an on-street parking space that turned into an elevator, while Musk tweeted a video of an elevator that seemed to be located in the middle of a sidewalk as part of his updated concept.
However, even if foot and vehicle traffic enter the system separately, how does it know to prioritize pedestrians, and what does that look like in practice? Will vehicles be held up in the tunnels for pods transporting carless people? We need more answers before taking Musk at his word.
#2. Elevators will be major choke points.
Musk’s tweets failed to address one of the biggest flaws in his plan: the elevators. Not only will they be an incredibly expensive part of the system — he wants thousands of them — but they’ll be the main choke points. If this does become a popular system — let alone if it becomes a reality at all — how will it deal with peak travel times?
The elevators are designed to cause major backups with lines of cars waiting on streets to enter and underground to take the elevator out. The pedestrian pods are also quite small, with limited capacity, so if a lot of people want to use it, it would need to be constantly cycling pods up and down.
#3. The quantity of tunnels makes it inefficient.
Even if Musk gets tunneling costs closer to those of Madrid and Seoul, the sheer quantity of tunnels that his system would require make it an incredibly inefficient way to transport people and guarantees a high user price. The Boring Company would replicate the worst aspects of the road network underground, meaning it would come with a higher cost; the road network requires massive public subsidy, which is why it’s falling into disrepair.
As mentioned previously, tunneling is not the only cost of underground infrastructure projects. The thousands of elevators Musk envisions will add significant additional costs to his system, not to mention the permissions to place them on the street and sidewalk. He will also need to build the pedestrian cars, the vehicle platforms, and whatever he wants to use to move them through the tunnels.
I’ve mused previously that the Boring Company’s ridership will limited to people with higher incomes because the inefficiencies of the project — which Musk seems unable to recognize — will result in a high price for the service, and Musk’s recent tweets don’t alter my view. He may be talking about fairness, but his vision will not deliver it.
#4. Why allow for inefficient competition?
Finally, all of Musk’s tunnels and elevators will require planning permission from local authorities, and given the inefficient nature of his project, I see no reason why they should permit it. Some municipalities are letting him build tunnels to see where it goes and associate themselves with Musk in the hope that their cities will be seen as innovative and forward thinking, but it would be wrong to let his project become a reality for those reasons alone.
Not only will the Boring Company require a lot of new tunnels, which may need to go deep to avoid existing underground infrastructure, but it will also require a ton of road and sideway space for its elevators. Why should local governments give all that up for a system that is fundamentally inefficient?
There’s no debating that North American cities need more investment in transportation infrastructure to hasten the transition away from personal automobiles, but the Boring Company does not represent the path forward. Instead of digging an obscene number of tunnels for a system that was designed with “individualized transportation” in mind, it would be far better to put that effort into expanding subway systems to efficiently move many more people. Cities don’t need competing subways; they should direct investment toward a robust public transit system that serves everyone.
The Boring Company is a distraction
Just as Hyperloop is a distraction from high-speed rail, the Boring Company seems like little more than a distraction from the growing support for public transit expansion — if not an attempt for Musk to get some of that public money for himself. The Boring Company is emblematic of the Silicon Valley conviction that everything must be reinvented, literally: Airbnb is building a hotel, Uber is moving closer to operating like a bus service, and Elon Musk is slowly inventing the subway all over again.
The initial goal of the Boring Company company — to reduce tunneling costs — seemed plausible, even if Musk targeted technology instead of the real inefficiencies. However, anyone who really believes the transportation plan that grew out of it — miles and miles of under-city tunnels connected to thousands of street-level elevators — is in any way achievable without huge public subsidies or exorbitant prices needs to pull their head out of Elon Musk’s ass and come back to the real world.
I honestly feel exhausted just writing about the Boring Company because it’s so obviously inefficient, unrealizable, and the epitome of elite projection that anyone who can’t see its fundamental flaws must be so deep in the tech bubble that I wonder if they’ll ever be capable of seeing past the (admittedly brilliant) propaganda disseminated by Silicon Valley titans.
I can only hope that once Elon Musk has his personal tunnel from his home to his workplace that he’ll finally stop pushing for a larger transportation system. If he’s successful in bringing down tunneling costs, he could bid for subway expansion projects or even lobby governments to make use of his low-cost tunneling solution to build more subways. We already know how to efficiently move people through cities, and Musk does not have the answer. The sooner he stops distracting people with unrealizable projects, the more likely we are to have the real transportation revolution that’s urgently needed in urban centers.