Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
The Tesla CEO says his Boring Company tunnel cost $10 million per mile to build. If that’s true, it could be a big deal for public transit.
Let’s get one thing straight: The Tesla-in-a-tunnel that Elon Musk unveiled to reporters on Tuesday night in Los Angeles was not a “train,” although that’s what he called it on Twitter.
The Boring Company’s 12-foot wide, 1.14 mile-long tunnel beneath a Hawthorne industrial park couldn’t have fit anything bigger than a passenger vehicle, in this case a Model X that seats seven. There were no rails. There were rough-hewn gutters that theoretically allow said vehicle to roll through on a set of tracking wheels, but Tuesday’s short ride was literally bumpy. This was not a frictionless high-speed trip aboard a sleek electric-powered “skates,” as shown in earlier digital renderings. “We kind of ran out of time,” Musk explained.
Rail fans may be laughing or hanging their heads at Musk’s display, given the entrepreneur/inventor/CEO’s tendency to make big promises, as well as his commitment to displacing more proven, efficient modes of transit from conversation. But it’s hard to dismiss one key achievement of this project. Musk put a Tesla in a tunnel, and he did it for a potentially game-changing price: The demonstration tube cost $10 million a mile to dig, according to Musk.
That excludes costs of research, development, or equipment, the L.A. Times reported. Whether it factors in property acquisition or labor—which generally represents at least 30 to 40 percent of a project’s cost—isn’t clear. But even at $50 million per mile, it would still be a fraction of what comparable projects cost. If Musk’s company has built what many tunneling pros have long thought unachievable—a boring machine that does the job cheaper and faster than the stalwarts of civil engineering thought possible—that could be a boon for underground transit systems in the U.S., which often struggle to justify their enormous construction costs.
Have a look at the average cost per mile of recent subway projects around the U.S., compiled by CityLab contributor Alon Levy in January:
“If his tunneling costs are real, that would provide a staggering benefit for subway transit. And we need more transit tunnels in our cities badly as an alternative to street traffic and to expand overall capacity,” Ethan Elkind, a UC Berkeley lawyer and scholar specializing in transportation and the environment, told Curbed. “If it works, transit agencies may want a piece in some way.”
It wasn’t long ago that Musk was airing his contempt for public transit in various fora. But he seems to have changed his tune, or at least his company has. For example, the “Dugout Loop” concept promised for L.A.’s Dodger Stadium will have pods to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. Steve Davis, the project lead for the Boring Company, talked up the adaptability of the tunnel/car combination to either private or shared modes of mobility. “The same vehicle can be used for public and private transportation,” he said on Tuesday. “I don’t know of any trains that can be used for private transportation, or any cars that can be used as public transportation.”
As transit experts have long insisted, the car-in-tube configuration seems unlikely to achieve Musk’s dream of defeating traffic any time soon—even if you doubled the occupancy of each vehicle, it just doesn’t come close to matching what a train or bus can carry. And Musk’s wild vision of a subterranean tube network for all of L.A.’s private and public vehicles, if built, would still be subject to the same principle of induced demand that has clogged the freeways above it.
But cheaper, faster tunnels that would help L.A. Metro build the miles of trail in the pipeline for 2028? It’s hard to see a drawback there. Elon, keep digging.