Cities attract wild ideas, from Qinhuangdao’s straddling bus to London’s bike lanes in the sky. As Musk’s Boring Company starts tunnelling, could his plans for underground roads and Hyperloop trains prove the doubters wrong?
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 there 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 quotidian 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 organisation that has already developed transformative automobile and rocket technologies.
“The next step is to use what we learn to make stronger, faster tunnel boring machines, to make a safe transportation system, and then to 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.
From the aspirational to the absurd
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.
Near the far end of that spectrum, a company in China gathered global attention in 2016 with plans to build a lane-straddling bus – a novel contraption designed to carry hundreds of passengers over two lanes of traffic, theoretically bypassing congestion. The prototype of a sort of double-wide subway car on stilts, was completed a few months later and given a test run, with regular passenger vehicles driving underneath. But within days the project was stalled, and was abandoned less than a year later after it was accused of being little more than an investment scam. The founder of the company behind the project and 31 employees were recently arrested on suspicion of illegal fundraising.