Elon Musk's Boring Company, which has to date sold the dream of a massive tunnel-based transportation system to get (wealthy) people's cars around faster and also mislabelled "flamethrowers", is now selling itself as the future of mass urban transit.
In a series of tweets on Friday, Musk explained that the focus of the company's Los Angeles and East Coast projects - massive and complicated concepts for a network of intercity Hyperloop tubes and separate intracity transport systems that zip around high-speed electromagnetic sleds - is now shifting to make their priorities moving people, not private vehicles.
Musk said that he now considers it a "matter of courtesy & fairness" and that the network won't move cars until after it is already brimming with train car-style pods.
Will still transport cars, but only after all personalized mass transit needs are met. It’s a matter of courtesy & fairness. If someone can’t afford a car, they should go first.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 9, 2018
Of course, this is Musk we're talking about, so the new concept still comes in at a seemingly implausible scale. Rather than a small number of big stations "like a subway," the urban loop system will "have 1000's of small stations the size of a single parking space that take you very close to your destination & blend seamlessly into the fabric of a city."
Better video coming soon, but it would look a bit like this: pic.twitter.com/C0iJPi8b4U
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 9, 2018
Challenged on whether he is just talking about an underground bus, Musk responded, "I guess you could say it's a [240km/h], underground, autonomous, electric bus that automatically switches between tunnels and lifts. So, yes, a bus."
It's easy to see why Musk would change his mind on this. Last year, when Musk said public transport is "painful" and "sucks," he was derided by transit advocates as an out-of-touch billionaire whose intent was building a parallel transportation network for rich people who don't want to pay for shared infrastructure.
At the same time, the Boring Company is starting to dig tunnels in LA and Washington, DC, but still needs to win the cooperation of government officials who could either give him the permits he needs to keep digging or drown the project in regulatory hell.
Rebranding the Hyperloop and associated tunnel projects as designed for the common commuter first and foremost solves some of Musk's PR problems and might help grease those bureaucratic gears, especially in an era where politicians really love "market-based" solutions to public needs.
But while this new idea is more egalitarian than the prior idea, the urban loop system in particular has got the same host of conceptual problems. For one, as City Lab pointed out last year, the whole raison d'être for urban transportation is moving large groups of people relatively close to their destinations in a straightforward fashion rather than moving smaller groups of people exactly where they want to go.
It is a much more efficient use of limited, expensive urban real estate, for example, to let people who want to go to 10th Street off at 15th Street and let them walk five blocks than it is to try and build a Rube Goldberg machine's worth of extra tunnels.
The crowding Musk hates is actually a side-effect of this system being a pretty useful series of tradeoffs; if it's packed, that's because people are using it to get to places they need to be. The old model may have the perception of a lumbering behemoth, but it is proven to work and scale when the resources are there.
As US News noted, the whole Hyperloop and urban loop concept relies on the Boring Company's tunnel-digging technology being much faster and cheaper than current engineering practices.
But while new tunnelling tech is fine and dandy, it's not going to decrease the cost of things like land and compliance, nor is it likely to make construction so much cheaper that digging hundreds of extra tunnels and stations so people can go directly to the Whole Foods entrance is suddenly feasible.
The urban loop doesn't seem to have an accurate understanding of how cities are actually laid out and their limited geometric spaces are divvied up.
It's similarly overly optimistic about well such a system could perform in practice and at scale. A subway train breaking down is bad enough, but what happens when one of this theoretical system's thousands of track components get stuck and traps dozens of people movers in a tunnel? How much does it cost to maintain hundreds of tracks and cars versus a smaller number of high-capacity ones? How is building a maze of hydraulic platforms all over the city more efficient than a smaller number of frequent transit corridors?
Transportation infrastructure in the US may well be pretty bad these days, but the problem is largely that cities either haven't invested in building new public transit systems or have let current ones stagnate. It might sound nice to just let some billionaire take care of it, but it is also not so great to see cities bend over backwards for the patronage of billionaires.
Also, one would hope the final concept for these stations involves handrails, because otherwise people are gonna fall in, man!