Elon Musk’s plan to fix the world’s worst traffic probably won’t work, experts say

Los Angeles traffic is both world-famous and infuriating. But Elon Musk’s solution — underground tunnels dug by the Boring Company — isn’t what Los Angeles really needs, experts say.

Musk first shared his idea to dig tunnels across LA on Dec. 17, 2016, when he became fed up with being stuck behind the wheel. “Traffic is driving me nuts,” he tweeted. “[I] am going to start building a tunnel boring machine and just start digging.”

Now, on Dec. 4, Musk and the Boring Company updated his vision by releasing a conceptual map of proposed tunnel routes for Los Angeles.

Elon Musk through the years:

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Elon Musk through the years
Elon Musk, founder, CEO and lead designer at SpaceX and co-founder of Tesla, speaks at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, U.S., July 19, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Elon Musk, founder, CEO and lead designer at SpaceX and co-founder of Tesla, speaks at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, U.S., July 19, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk takes the stage to speak at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S., July 15, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
FILE PHOTO: Tesla Chief Executive, Elon Musk enters the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, U.S., January 6, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo
Elon Musk, Chairman of SolarCity and CEO of Tesla Motors, speaks at SolarCity's Inside Energy Summit in Manhattan, New York October 2, 2015. SolarCity on Friday said it had built a solar panel that is the most efficient in the industry at transforming sunlight into electricity. REUTERS/Rashid Umar Abbasi
Tesla Motors Inc CEO Elon Musk unveils a new all-wheel-drive version of the Model S car in Hawthorne, California October 9, 2014. Tesla Motors Inc on Thursday took its first step toward automated driving, unveiling features that will allow its electric sedan to park itself and sense dangerous situations. The company also said it will roll out an all-wheel drive option of the Model S sedan that can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.2 seconds yet doesn't compromise the vehicle's efficiency. Musk said "D" stands for "dual motor," meaning Tesla's all-wheel drive vehicle will have a motor at either end of the chassis to increase control. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS HEADSHOT)
Tesla Motors Inc CEO Elon Musk unveils a new all-wheel-drive version of the Model S car in Hawthorne, California October 9, 2014. Tesla Motors Inc on Thursday took its first step toward automated driving, unveiling features that will allow its electric sedan to park itself and sense dangerous situations. The company also said it will roll out an all-wheel drive option of the Model S sedan that can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.2 seconds yet doesn't compromise the vehicle's efficiency. Musk said "D" stands for "dual motor," meaning Tesla's all-wheel drive vehicle will have a motor at either end of the chassis to increase control. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS HEADSHOT)
Tesla Motors Inc Chief Executive Elon Musk speaks during a news conference in Tokyo September 8, 2014. Musk said on Monday that he would not be surprised if there was a significant deal with Toyota Motor Corp in the next two to three years, though there were no definitive plans. REUTERS/Toru Hanai (JAPAN - Tags: BUSINESS TRANSPORT)
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, waves during a news conference to mark the company's delivery of the first batch of electric cars to Chinese customers in Beijing April 22, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS) CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA
CEO & CTO of SpaceX and CEO & Chief Product Architect of Tesla Motors Elon Musk receives The President's Award for Exploration and Technology at the 110th Explorers Club Annual Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York March 15, 2014. The club, which promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air and space featured catering for the event by chef and exotic creator Gene Rurka. Chef Rurka prepared a variety of dishes featuring an array of insects, wildlife, animal body parts and invasive species. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY FOOD)
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk talks at the Automotive World News Congress at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan, January 13, 2015. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS)
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks after unveiling the Dragon V2 spacecraft in Hawthorne, California May 29, 2014. Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, on Thursday unveiled an upgraded passenger version of the Dragon cargo ship NASA buys for resupply runs to the International Space Station. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS TRANSPORT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY SOCIETY)
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk poses at the premiere of the documentary "Revenge of the Electric Car" in Los Angeles October 21, 2011. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT TRANSPORT BUSINESS PORTRAIT)
Elon Musk, Chief Executive of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, attends the Reuters Global Technology Summit in San Francisco June 18, 2013. REUTERS/Stephen Lam (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TRANSPORT)
Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk leaves a press event at his company's factory in Fremont, California, June 22, 2012. Tesla began delivering its Model S electric sedan to customers on June 22. REUTERS/Noah Berger (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS)
SpaceX founder Elon Musk pauses at a press conference following the first launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
SpaceX founder Elon Musk listens at a press conference following the first launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk waves as he leaves the stage after speaking at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S., July 15, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
89th Academy Awards - Oscars Vanity Fair Party - Beverly Hills, California, U.S. - 26/02/17 ? Elon Musk. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk speaks during the National Governors Association Summer Meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S., July 15, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Elon Musk, founder, CEO and lead designer at SpaceX and co-founder of Tesla, arrives at the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition II in Hawthorne, California, U.S., August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk attends a forum on startups in Hong Kong, China January 26, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks about new Autopilot features during a Tesla event in Palo Alto, California October 14, 2015. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach
Tesla founder Elon Musk arrives for the the annual Allen and Co. media conference Sun Valley, Idaho July 7, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 11: Elon Musk speaks onstage at Elon Musk Answers Your Questions! during SXSW at ACL Live on March 11, 2018 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 11: Elon Musk speaks onstage at Elon Musk Answers Your Questions! during SXSW at ACL Live on March 11, 2018 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Diego Donamaria/Getty Images for SXSW)
AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 10: Elon Musk speaks on stage during the Westworld Featured Session during SXSW at Austin Convention Center on March 10, 2018 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by FilmMagic/FilmMagic for HBO)
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 10: Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX speaks onstage during SXSW at Austin Convention Center on March 10, 2018 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Amy E. Price/Getty Images for SXSW)
BERLIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 08: Elon Musk attends the 'Goldenes Lenkrad' Award at Axel Springer Haus on November 8, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Tristar Media/WireImage)
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk speaks at a press conference during the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico on September 27, 2016. / AFP / HECTOR GUERRERO (Photo credit should read HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images)
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The first phase of construction would include a 6.5-mile, proof-of-concept tunnel between West Los Angeles and Inglewood (an excavation permit application has already been submitted, the Boring Company said). Other routes would then be added across the city, stretching to all well-touristed corners, including Santa Monica and the Dodger Stadium.

But Elon Musk’s vision won’t become a reality without overcoming a long process of bureaucratic red tape. If it does happen, it will likely look something like this: Cars will sit on electric skates that carry them at high speeds through underground tunnels. An elevator-like lift will bring them from the street level to underground, along with autonomously-driven pods that may carry 8 to 16 passengers at a time.

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It sounds cool and looks futuristic, but “I wouldn’t expect it to do anything measurable to reduce what congestion is like on the existing roadways in Los Angeles,” Juan Matute, associate director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, said in a phone interview.

“That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t speed up Elon Musk’s commute or the commute of others who use it,” he added, “but there wouldn’t be any measured impact on the 405 and other congested freeways, or surface streets.”

The traffic problem in LA is bad — really bad. It actually ranks as the worst in the world, according to the 2016 Inrix Global Traffic Scorecard, which measured hours stuck in traffic across 1,064 cities. Within 240 commuting days, LA drivers spent an average of 104.1 hours behind the wheel in congestion during peak hours in 2016 (for what it’s worth, there were 261 work days on the calendar that year).

Surely, with a problem this severe, one could argue that it’s heartening to see all hands on deck — Musk’s included.

“I do like the fact that private sector dollars are being expended on mobility and the transit side,” Brooks Rainwater, director of the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions, said in a phone interview. However, he sees a very clear issue with these tunnels of high-speed electric skis: “You’re still going to have a problem of induced demand and tunneling underground,” he said.

“Induced demand” is exactly why several transit experts have thrown cold water on Musk’s idea. It’s a well-documented phenomenon where increasing capacity for cars ultimately invites more cars on the road. In other words, many believe that traffic can’t be resolved by simply making more space for cars — which is what Musk’s tunnels will effectively do by removing a vehicle from the streets and turning it into an underground luge.

“That’s been the story in LA for decades. Over the past 15 years, we’ve had two projects — the last of which was over a billion dollars — to widen the 405 freeway,” Matute said. “It has had a really negligible effect on traffic. … That applies to a tunnel, a widened roadway — anything, really.”

Though the Boring Company’s selling point is its “fast to dig, low cost tunnels,” Matute said the real snag might be in the surface-street connection. Although tunnels can be dug deep underground, already-existing infrastructure can make constructing the car elevator a high-cost puzzle.

“Especially if you want to have a surface connection under the street, which is where the utilities are, you have to remap all of those utilities in order to dig that surface connection,” he said. “That’s what ends up being really expensive — when you have, in some cases, a 3-foot-wide storm drain that you have to reroute without clogging it up.”

Matute estimated that the Boring Company’s map would cost about $50 to $75 billion to build, and said he believes that this wouldn’t be transportation for the common man. He estimated that prices to take Musk’s express tunnel system would conceivably be $50 or even $100 each way.

“$100 would not be unreasonable to try to recuperate the cost. That’s still eight or so dollars [in a 16-person passenger pod], when the metro fare is $1.75,” he said. “There are some people for whom it’d make LA a more viable place — Elon Musk and other people who have the money to spend $10,000 a year on these types of fees.”

Matute also said he believes that it would take 15 or more years to build the proposed network of tunnels on “an aggressive construction schedule.” Rainwater, too, estimated 15 years — though he noted Musk has a track record for moving quickly on his many other ventures, like SpaceX and Tesla.

“Until we are seeing miles of tunnel laid down, I don’t think we really know the long-term implications of how quick this project would get done,” Rainwater said. “Ultimately, what’s happening is that we’re in this transportation mobility shift where there’s lots of wonderful new ideas explored, but we’re still only in that piloting and concept phase.”

“People who study transportation are waiting for the additional details,” Matute said. “This is highly unlikely to work. I would bet against it.”

Los Angeles is planning a serious transit makeover, though LA residents will still need to keep their patience. In 2016, the city introduced a sales tax hike that is expected to bring $860 million a year to projects such as subway line extensions, an all-new rail to Los Angeles International Airport, new bike lanes and an expanded bike-share system.

“I think the best foot forward for Los Angeles is exactly what they’re doing,” Rainwater said. “There’s been great investments by the residents of LA, in tens of billions of dollars, for long-term infrastructure transit projects.”

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