Should we blame Elon Musk for the LA subway system?
Public transportation is supposed to make life easier for everyone. However, the public transportation system in Los Angeles, California is doing just the opposite. Traffic is a nightmare, but increasingly, people are choosing gridlock over public transportation. Despite Elon Musk’s one-time pledge to help, things aren’t getting any better.
Why is public transportation in Los Angeles so bad?
Traffic in Los Angeles is infamously terrible, but the Los Angeles public transportation system just might be worse. Rider rates on trains and busses have been steadily decreasing in recent years, and the reasons are predictably multifaceted. Some riders claim that the independence and safety facilitated by individual cars is a major motivation for avoiding the Los Angeles subway; others flock to new-car leases that allow them to drive their car to and from their day jobs and also provide the opportunity to earn a secondary source of income as an Uber or Lyft (or another ride-share service) driver. One of the primary problems with public transportation in Los Angeles today is that the reasons people look to public transportation have changed over the years, says Mike Manville, leader of a ridership study for UCLA. He says that in order to fix the problem of bad LA public transportation (and the bad press that goes with it), planners and leaders need to focus on making public transportation more convenient and more environmentally conscious.
Other critics of the LA public transportation system say that its problems are inherent to the organization of the city. Blogger Alon Levy argues that the basic spread-out structure of the city makes it nearly impossible for public transportation to function efficiently and that in order for public transportation to really make a difference in the lives of its citizens, the city needs to undergo a drastic and dramatic urban design shift.
What was Elon Musk’s plan for LA public transportation?
Elon Musk’s perhaps aptly named Boring Company proposed a public transportation plan to the city of Los Angeles that was supposed to be cheaper, easier, and faster than any of its competitors. This subway system called a “people mover” would presumably be capable of transporting thousands of people every hour and would drastically reduce transportation times. This projected Los Angeles subway was supposed to consist of an underground multi-mile loop featuring self-driving electric vehicles speeding along the track.
Why didn’t Musk’s plan for a Los Angeles subway work?
However, when Musk demonstrated a preview of the tunnel and its speedy vehicles, spectators and riders alike were underwhelmed. Instead of an autonomous car or train, visitors were merely shuttled around in a Tesla, complete with real-person driver. The Boring Company’s proposed plan had transformed from putting high-speed self-driving technologically advanced vehicles on tracks to simply getting a Tesla down into the bowels of the city and letting it drive around.
Not only was the vehicle itself disappointing, but this first wave of trial riders also realized that the maximum capacity of Musk’s Los Angeles subway proposal would greatly reduce the number of people able to utilize the system. Instead of a setup designed to transport large numbers of people quickly and efficiently, Musk’s tunnel plan has been criticized as being more like a private roadway for special and/or high-paying customers.
What really killed the Boring Company’s plans, though, was less disappointment and more lawsuit. The company had initially applied for an exemption from the requisite environmental review process that would allow them to start digging for their Los Angeles subway tunnel immediately. Although the authorities had no problem with this, a committee of nearby residents did. This group of concerned citizens argued that because Musk’s subway system would ultimately be part of a larger system it was unable to qualify for this type of exemption. The case was settled out of court, but the situation led to Musk leaving the Los Angeles subway situation behind as he pursues other projects.
What is the city doing to improve the Los Angeles subway nightmare?
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in the middle of considering a plan, 28 by 2028, to finish 28 different transportation construction projects by the year 2028 (which is, not coincidentally, the year the city is supposed to host the Summer Olympics). However, based on the city’s mass transit history and their recently approved 2020 city budget which only minimally increases the budget for the transit system, critics deem such progress unlikely.
Could Musk’s plan still be beneficial to subway systems?
The short answer? Possibly. Recently, the Boring Company has revived its proposed subway method, even though the Los Angeles subway is out of the game. Musk is now proposing transportation tunnels that feature vehicles without the undercarriage sleds he was in favor of initially. According to Musk, if vehicles can switch between traditional roads and tunnels (and if there are enough tunnels build across the country or city), his company’s proposed system of tunnel loops would be more efficient than current subway systems. The biggest benefit of Musk’s tunnel proposal is that the tunnels themselves are smaller and thus less expensive than what is required for today’s subways. For example, in New York City, the cost per mile of subway tunnel is currently $2.6 billion, while Musk claims to be able to knock that cost down to a paltry $10 million per mile. Something similar to Musk’s underground tunnels plan might be in future cities, but for right now, it’s not looking particularly likely.