I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly certain that I was the only person who traveled via public transit to the opening of Elon Musk’s tunnel.
Using LA’s extant tunnels and trains to get to the Boring Company event seemed like the only appropriate way to compare what exists today to an idea being touted to end “soul-crushing traffic” sometime in the near future.
The main entrance to the 1.14-mile test tunnel is located at SpaceX’s headquarters, a mere third of a mile from Metro’s Green Line.
Google Maps says it’s a six-minute walk to the tunnel from the Crenshaw Station; it took me closer to ten. Crenshaw Boulevard is up to seven lanes across in some places—as wide as some highways—and you have to wait a very long time for all vehicular traffic to stop to use the crosswalk. Gauging by the extra-long pedestrian countdown clock, it takes nearly 30 seconds just to walk across the street.
Boring Company employees, who work out of the SpaceX facility, know how awful these intersections are. Right around the time Musk tweeted his first pledge to combat traffic with tunnels, several SpaceX employees were injured in two separate crashes—one of which was a harrowing high-speed hit-and-run.
As a result, SpaceX built a pedestrian bridge last year that travels over Crenshaw from the company’s parking garage to its headquarters. Now employees can drive their vehicles right into the structure and don’t have to take an elevator or stairs back down to street level to get to the office. They just walk over the speeding cars below.
When I was boarding the Boring Company’s ride—or, more accurately, driven down a paved track in a Tesla SUV—I realized I didn’t actually need to go in the tunnel under the street to get a sense of how the transportation system might work. I kept thinking about that pedestrian bridge over the street and how it’s a perfect metaphor for the tunnel.
The people with access to the right kind of vehicles—Tesla-driving people, mostly—now have access to a safer, more efficient route to work thanks to the bridge. Other people who can't use it—people who don’t drive—are still stuck navigating dangerous, unfriendly conditions created by those vehicles.
Like the tunnel, it’s a private piece of infrastructure built for the convenience of some car users to avoid each other, instead of improving the entire transportation experience for everyone’s benefit.
Like the tunnel, it won’t solve traffic.
But if SpaceX could somehow reduce the number of people who drive alone to work, it would mean fewer cars on the road. It would make the area around SpaceX safer and more enjoyable for everyone—and fewer people would need to use that pedestrian bridge at all.
This is, coincidentally, the exact same way to fix the bad congestion Musk encounters on his own way to work.
SpaceX representatives weren’t able to tell me how many of their 7,000 employees take the Green Line to commute, but if the Boring Company really wants to build a system that solves traffic, it could start by looking at why its own employees are driving to work instead of taking that 0.3-mile walk from the Green Line—and what might make that decision easier for them.
At a recent panel hosted by Metro that I moderated—entitled, funnily enough, Think you can solve traffic?—I saw an encouraging presentation from Joy Forbes, NBCUniversal’s vice president of planning. The company launched a pilot program earlier this year that offered employees subsidized fare cards, provided incentives for choosing non-car modes, and paired transit-curious first-time riders with transit-riding mentors.
Six months later, the number of NBCUniversal employees in the program who report driving alone to work has gone from 59 percent to 14 percent. The percentage of those who report riding public transit to work went from 19 percent to a whopping 59 percent. The mode-share (as planners call it) essentially flipped.
Numbers like that have the potential to get a lot of cars off the road during peak hours.
If you want to get a feel for Musk’s tunnel vision, you don’t have to be invited to a splashy celeb-studded opening.
On the way to the Boring Company, I transferred to the Green Line from the Silver Line—a bus rapid-transit line that travels south from Downtown LA. The Silver Line is also one of the only lines in Metro’s system that's experiencing a marked increase in ridership, and I could see why when I rode it: That sucker is fast.
Traveling in our own dedicated lane, zooming past the other cars, my soul was the opposite of crushed: It sprouted wings and flew.
Although the bus is fast, the experience is kind of a bummer: Most of the stations are nestled in the middle of the 110 freeway. I transferred from the Silver Line to the Green Line in what’s essentially the basement of a famous four-level stacked interchange. (The view from the very top level is stunning; that scene from La La Land was filmed there.)
At some point, someone decided to spend millions of dollars to prioritize the movement of inefficient private vehicles in a way that punished the most vulnerable users of this infrastructure, forcing them down into this dismal (and potentially damaging) environment.
I stood for awhile in the deafening roar of traffic and counted easily three dozen lanes of cars and trucks swirling around me, as I was forced to wait to make my transfer.
At the Boring Company launch event, Musk talked about building dozens of car tunnels stacked three to four levels deep, just like this, as a solution for traffic.
“No matter how much demand there is, you can satisfy it with a network of 3D tunnels,” he said. “If you have 20, 30, 40 tunnels, eventually you run out of people to use them.”
Experts say this won’t work.
Standing on the Silver Line platform, sunlight blocked by spans of roadway in every direction, I’d say we already have one 3D transportation network for cars, and one is quite enough.
Musk tweeted the day after the demo that the company’s new goal is increasing capacity for the tunnel to “4,000 vehicles per hour at 155mph,” using a “variety of vehicles, like normal roads, from a small car to a densely seated bus.” But the tunnels can’t be all buses, he later clarified.
Yet Musk has said repeatedly that pedestrians and cyclists get priority in his tunnels. The only way to truly do that would be to make every vehicle accessible to everyone, with every access point designed not as giant car elevators or twirling driveway ramps, but as walkable boarding areas for people who don’t have cars.
The entrance to the Boring Company tunnel is half a block from the SpaceX parking lot, which holds 1,500 cars. How many tunnels will need to be built to get those 1,500 car owners home faster than driving on surface streets? Does Crenshaw get widened even more to accommodate the lines of SpaceX drivers trying to get into the tunnel at 5pm? Do the employees who don’t have cars get priority, arriving home to their families first?
Just like building a bridge over a dangerous street doesn’t automatically make it safer, you can’t funnel cars below a city thinking you can just avoid what’s wrong on the surface.
Before they start digging the next tunnel, I’d ask the people working at the Boring Company to figure out why exactly they don’t like crossing Crenshaw Boulevard—and instead of building ways to avoid it, design a solution that actually benefits all the people who use it.