The Boring Company is an idea that Elon Musk hatched while sitting in traffic in California. Wouldn’t it be easier if there were tunnels under the city that could take us anywhere we wanted to go, in the comfort of our own cars?
There are of course tunnels under the city that take people anywhere they want to go. It’s called the subway. The key element here is going in your own car. No need to shuffle down over-heated tiled corridors and cram yourself in, face in someone’s armpit, for a 10mph crawl to your station. Instead, you drive your car onto a lift, which may be no bigger than a parking spot. It lowers you to the tunnel entrance, and you drive onto a trolley. The trolley whisks you down the tunnel faster than you could safely drive it, ready to be hoisted back out the top at the other end. It’s a ‘wormhole’ through the city, as Musk calls it, and a working prototype of the ‘loop system’ is now in operation:
Before we go any further, I’d just like to point out that the concrete tracks and guidewheels that make the the Loop system possibly are pretty much what we have on Luton’s busway. With that out of the way, the rest of it is pretty novel.
When I first heard about the Boring Company’s plans, I shelved them as a expensive luxury for cities that couldn’t bring themselves to challenge car culture. While they might play a role in reducing traffic and emissions on some routes, they would serve private motorists and wouldn’t address many of the other downsides of car dependency. In which case, they’re just an expensive distraction from the real business of creating decent public transport.
Like many of Elon Musk’s ideas, it was also worth waiting to see if it was even possible. On paper, there’s no way it would be economical to bore new tunnels under cities unless you’re going to run mass transit on them. There’s a good chance this comes to nothing – but then Musk has done the impossible before. So far the company is re-inventing tunnel boring machines from the ground up, and has hit on some remarkably clever ways to make it pay. For example, what if the tunnel boring machine extracts the mud and rock and presses it into bricks as it goes? They would be easier to truck away, and the tunnel would pay for itself with brick sales – if there are enough people to buy them, presumably.
After my initial scepticism, I’m prepared to give the idea a second thought after the unveiling of the test track in December. There was one bit of detail which seems particularly important to me – as well as running private cars through the tunnel, there would also be circulating vehicles to carry pedestrians and cyclists. You could also run minibuses on the system.
That makes the Loop into a kind of public/private transport hybrid. That would keep it accessible to those without a car, and bring the benefits to more people. Bikes are a pain on metro systems and subways, if they’re allowed at all, so it could make longer journeys easier by bike. If taxis and minibuses can use the tunnels, it could support a healthy paratransit network too.
Of course, all of that depends on how the tunnels operate commercially, and how they’re priced. Well meaning plans to prioritise pedestrians could easily go out the window later, so I’m not 100% convinced. Neither would it necessarily be a sustainable form of transport – much depends on the local conditions and how deep the tunnels need to be. But perhaps there’s more to the Boring Company than a rich man’s fantasy of escaping the traffic, and it’s an idea to keep an eye on.