Is Elon Musk's Plan For a Road Network Beneath LA More Than a Pipe Dream?
By Nate Berg
4 September 2017
Photo courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies
In early August, the city council of Hawthorne, California, held a special meeting. It had set aside this time to discuss a major construction project proposed by a high profile company based in the sprawling Los Angeles basin.
The company was Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, the rocket-building offshoot of the electric car company Tesla, run by the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk. SpaceX had recently spun off another entity, this one aimed at disrupting the tunnel boring business, cheekily named the Boring Company – and it needed the City of Hawthorne’s cooperation.
“We want to prove our technology,” Brett Horton, senior director of facilities and construction at SpaceX, told the city council. The company had recently purchased a used tunnel boring machine from another California city and had begun testing its capabilities below its parking lot. But SpaceX wants to go further, tunnelling a roughly two-mile path beyond its property line and under the streets of Hawthorne. It’s a fairly small infrastructural endeavour, but one tied to a grand vision.
Musk wants to build a vast network of tunnels below cities like Los Angeles in which cars and people will be whisked across town on electrically driven platforms at speeds of 125mph. Like the swooping and merging lanes of an interstate highway, the tunnels would criss-cross the metropolis, far below ground level. Elevators would bring cars, cargo and other vehicles down into tunnels and into the system of tubes on what the Boring Company calls an “electric skate,” then back up another elevator at the desired destination – apparently bypassing all traffic above ground.
“Traffic is driving me nuts,” Musk tweeted in December. “Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging …”
The digging has begun. The company has bored about 160 feet under its own property, with no reported complications. The proposed two-mile extension is being presented as a laboratory for increasing the speed and reducing the cost of tunnelling. It’s a new frontier for a parent organization that has already developed transformative automobile and rocket technologies.
“The next step will be to use what we learn to make stronger and faster tunnel boring machines. We want to create a safe transportation system and then figure out where we want to go next,” Horton told the city council. “If you’ve had the opportunity to look at the videos online, it’s not a secret. We want these tunnels to be everywhere. We want to duplicate the road network in LA underground.
“We want to prove that we can solve traffic once and for all,” he said.
Usually these types of proposed projects don’t get built. Sometimes they’re mere marketing or self-promotion, other times they’re earnest suggestions for a better world – either way, they’re almost always able to generate a conversation.
“Visionary proposals are an essential way to come together in discussion about the city,” says Nicholas de Monchaux, an Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of California, Berkeley. Big ideas for the future city are nothing new, and although these schemes can sometimes seem preposterous in their ambitions, de Monchaux says they have a power to inspire.
One of the earliest and most enduring visions of an ideal society is presented in the book Utopia, published in 1516 by the lawyer and philosopher Thomas More. “Utopia literally described an island of cities that didn’t exist and couldn’t exist,” says de Monchaux. “But utopias help us think about the world as it actually is and ways we might want to change it – or not.”
Perhaps because of its role in modern life and its impact on urban form, transportation has long been the starting point for these thought experiments. And as technology evolves, these ideas have taken on a variety of new forms, ranging from the aspirational to the absurd.
However, concerns have been raised about another Musk idea, the pneumatic tube-based intercity transit system known as the Hyperloop. Though still in early test phases and with significant hurdles in the way of even a small-scale rollout, the proposed technology has spurred the launch of multiple companies and coverage by media around the world.
Some worry it’s diverting investment from proven and existing transportation technologies like high speed rail. But for the private companies competing to build the first viable Hyperloop system, traditional high speed rail can’t beat a 700mph tube.
Musk seems to agree. Although he originally released the Hyperloop idea to the global community in 2013 in the hope that someone else would bring it to reality, now that Musk has his own tunnelling company he has apparently decided to merge the Hyperloop with his underground tunnel traffic solution. “Just received verbal govt approval for The Boring Company to build an underground NY-Phil-Balt-DC Hyperloop,” Musk tweeted in July. “NY-DC in 29 mins.”
While Thomas More sought to use his imagined cities to raise questions and inspire new ways of building society, Musk is looking to put tunnel boring machines in the ground.
On August 22nd, officials from the Boring Company were back at Hawthorne City Hall, where a scale model of a SpaceX rocket sits on display in the central atrium. The company was seeking city council approval of an easement allowing it to use subterranean land beneath public property for its two-mile test tunnel, and affirming its exemption from review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Lawyers for the Boring Company explained the tunnel’s proposed path would be an L-shaped route that would mostly run beneath city streets at depths ranging from 22ft to 44ft below the surface. An environmental consultant explained that project should be exempt because there is a lack of significant impacts to traffic, air, water or noise which enables the tunnel to avoid CEQA review under an exemption typically used to streamline infill urban development. The council voted 4-1 to approve the easement.
A few details are still to be decided before a final permit can be issued, but strong city support is likely to ease that process. “We want this to be an awesome project that propels us into the future,” Hawthorne mayor Alex Vargas said.
The tunnel is expected to take five months to build, and construction could begin within weeks.