transport

Transport innovation of the week: the Boring Company Loop

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.

5 comments

  1. If the bricks are any good, why doesn’t he line the tunnels with them?

    Much will depend on where the energy comes from to build and run this thing. Can’t see it helping climate change much, somehow.

    Anyway, what else could he have done with all the money this is going to take?

    1. Perhaps the energy will come from solar, given that he also owns a solar company. The vehicles moving through the tunnel are on electric sleds, which would cut carbon emissions. Queuing traffic is a huge waste of energy and a big source of pollution, so it would reduce that – but then so would a bus, which is a whole lot cheaper. Hence my scepticism about encouraging private motoring. If public transport, pedestrians and cyclists can use the tunnels however, you have something that could be useful.

      Presumably you can’t make a brick and build with it immediately, as it would need to been fired and tested. And if you had to ship it out and back in again that would defeat the object. I also think it would be much slower than using custom made panels. It does raise the question of the embedded carbon of the tunnel though.

  2. I’ve thought of this many times, too, while sitting in traffic in San Diego, but lacking the resources of Elon Musk… It’s an interesting idea, definitely, and I could go for it if it were used alongside developing public transit instead of a substitute for it, if it were well developed for people who didn’t have cars, served low-income neighborhoods, and were subsidized for low-income users. How is it going to operate as a public good, as a system serving public needs? I’m especially curious what the cost to the user would end up being, if it would be comparable to the privatized highways and FasTrak lanes of southern California. It will be interesting to see if/how he develops this.

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