Elon Musk’s Tunnel Could Make LA’s Traffic Worse | Popular Science

Sarah Fecht at Popular Science writes: Elon Musk’s Tunnel Could Make LA’s Traffic Worse, or a Toll Road. I get quoted. The puns are mine.

Elon Musk is a man who makes the future happen. He’s building solar panels, and electric cars that can run off of the clean energy they create. He’s helping humanity become an interplanetary species by making spaceflight dramatically cheaper. But his idea to build a tunnel to avoid traffic congestion in Los Angeles seems uncharacteristically outdated.

In December, the billionaire tweeted that L.A.’s traffic “is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging.” At the time it seemed like a joke, but this week he posted an update:

The Guardian confirmed that Musk’s people have been talking to folks in the city government, but no permits have been issued so far. There aren’t many other details.

Perhaps the tunnel would be a private entrance to his Tony Stark-like lair. If so, Musk might be better off just taking a helicopter to LAX. Tunnel-boring is not cheap, and permitting can be a nightmare.


“If he wants to build a tunnel on his own land, more power to him,” says David Levinson, a transportation engineer at the University of Minnesota. “If he wants to build it under other people’s land, he will find infrastructure construction is a slow, boring process.”

And if Musk is planning to make the tunnel open to the public, he may be in for more disappointment. About 20 years ago, civil engineers and urban planners started realizing that building freeways and tunnels was only making traffic worse.

Adding new arterial roads makes driving easier and less infuriating, so people are more likely to make unnecessary trips and choose driving over public transit. It’s called induced traffic. New arterial roadways can lower traffic initially, but within a few years, congestion basically returns to its original levels of torture.

Researchers are trying to quantify the relationship between road expansion and induced traffic. Depending on the area, for every one percent increase in the miles of lanes in an area, there may be a 0.6 to 0.9 percent increase in traffic.

The new roadways can also cause traffic congestion on roads that are upstream and downstream of the new project, says Levinson.

It’s worth noting that induced traffic studies aren’t perfect, because studying cities is hard. A lot of the data is correlational. It wasn’t collected expressly to test how a new roadway affects traffic, so it can’t definitively prove that a city’s addition of a roadway caused a traffic increase. And there are any number of variables that can affect where and how much people drive—from new shopping complexes and housing developments to the presence or absence bike lanes and sidewalks—so devising a well-controlled urban experiment is difficult.

However, “[t]here is no question that road improvements prompt traffic increases,” writes Robert Cervero, a professor of city planning at UC Berkeley.

Those traffic increases can also come with increased likelihood of car crashes and pollution. “Though if everyone is driving a Tesla powered by a Solar City panel,” Levinson jokes, “I suppose the pollution issue is minor.”

Public transit might seem like a better investment, but it has similar problems. Expanding capacity on public transit induces more traffic, with only a small portion of redirected from automobiles. Although it serves other important societal functions, it doesn’t actually have much of an impact on road congestion, says Levinson.

He thinks that if Musk wants to relieve congestion, his best bet may be to make his tunnel a toll road. “Adding capacity without doing that is throwing money down a hole.”

Some additional thoughts:

A tunnel is just a link, it’s no different than any other limited access highway from a transport perspective. They tend to be costly (which is why there are so few). Of course they don’t require taking much surface land (some for entry, exit, and ventilation) so there is savings there, and they are less unpopular. How much travel time savings and for whom depends very much on the context.

In general adding capacity, by lowering the cost of travel, increases the number of trips that are made and their length. (Just as lowering the cost of Cigarettes increases the number smoked). This is not inherently a bad thing, it means more people can do what they want with their time, but it means more traffic congestion on upstream and downstream links that may not have been expanded (and less congestion on parallel links that serve similar markets).

Implementing road pricing would relieve congestion (although it is obviously politically difficult).

The purpose of public transport is to serve PT passengers, not relieve congestion. (See https://transportist.org/2015/05/13/for-whom-is-transit/ )  It should not be invested in “to relieve congestion” but to provide access for transit users. It has the same types of induced demand effects anything else does, if there is more capacity in times which are constrained, it will attract new demand (with an elasticity similar to road expansion), only a small share of which will come from roads. And those who switch from roads will free up capacity that will be used by others switching into the peak (with an elasticity similar to road expansion). This does not mean investment is inherently a bad thing, it gives people more choices, but transit’s effect on road congestion is really limited, especially in a place like LA (or most of the US for that matter). Similarly we should not expand roads to relieve transit crowding.
If he aims to make money at this venture, it will be very difficult without public subsidy.

On punching Nazis

As Jake says: “I hate Illinois Nazis“. I also hate Missouri Nazis. I hate Wisconsin Nazis. I hate Nazis from all over.

On the one hand, we have a set of values and standards calling for peaceful resolution of disputes and tolerance for alternative, even if despicable, ideas. If we start responding to speech with violence, we become just like them.

On the other hand, they have a set of values and standards different from ours. If you don’t respond to their speech with violence, they won’t understand, and will think you are weak. Their entire strategy is to exploit the weakness of the system to gain power, and to change the system to retain power.

The second hand is correct. You really need to think about two groups, we, the civil, and they, the uncivil. You treat the civil with civility, that is how civilization was built. You treat the uncivil with barbarity, that is how civilization is preserved.

We in the US have a Constitution, as imperfect and imperfectly administered as it has been historically, which governs individual and government rights and roles. If you subscribe to the Constitution, you are eligible to receive its protections (being secure in life, liberty, and property and so on, like not being punched in the face, and having the puncher jailed). You are a member of Team Civilization. If you do not subscribe to the Constitution and the system it engenders, you are not eligible to receive its protections.

Now, who is to decide who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Each and every one of us does this daily, at our own risk. There is ambiguity, some of our fellow citizens obviously miscalculate. Almost everyone thinks they are the good guys.  If we all assessed this correctly, or at least identically, politics would be much simpler.

Here is a brief 2×2 matrix describing behavior:

Who is in Power?  
    Nazis Team Civilization
Who is acting Nazis violent until done crushing violent until in power
Team Civilization violent until crushed or victorious generally non-violent, except with Nazis

So the question arises: Is some neo-Nazi, like say Richard Spencer, violent. His beliefs are not something I know at a personal level. However, he appears to be trying to make the US a white ethno-state. This means he is essentially calling for the “peaceful” expulsion of non-whites (as defined by him). I argue that he is advocating (seemingly through peaceful means) violence. This gets to the question of what is voluntary and peaceful.

At the risk of opening a philosophic can of worms, interaction can considered on a continuum between voluntary and compulsory. Free exchange between two parties is in some respects voluntary. However, if the good is necessary, like food, then while the particular exchange may be voluntary, the underlying demand is compulsory. A monopolist would have existential power. The archetype of compulsory relationships, the gun to the head as an implied threat of death when offered the opportunity to freely hand over your money, has in it some voluntary elements – though the “choice” of attempting disarmament or dying may not be appealing compared with turning over your money. The gunman has far more freedom of action than the victim in this case.

If in Spencer’s America, non-whites don’t voluntarily leave after some time window has passed, surely they will be forced to leave by the state, the institution with a legal monopoly of force. The state is the gunman in our “voluntary” expulsion. Calling for a white ethno-state is advocacy of violence, even if you are calling for it to be “legal” and “peaceful” and”constitutional”.

Saying “I wish you were dead” is not a crime. Acting to speed along someone’s death is.

In contrast, as far as I can tell, aside from neo-Nazis of various stripes (or should I say swastikas), who are clearly a minority, and their confederates, the vast share of the remainder of the US is not calling for expulsion or extermination of fellow citizens. We could go deeper and look at whether and which non-citizens are allowed to immigrate to the US. As we know, due to Prospect Theory, a loss of something you have (expulsion) is considered far worse than not winning (being prohibited from entering), even if both result in you being in the same place. Team Civilization gets to decide its membership. I personally think the membership should be broader, but the Constitution establishes the process by which the rules of membership are established. I will voice my opinion, but will not violently rebel.

Though I generally wouldn’t do it personally, it’s morally acceptable for individual members of Team Civilization to punch Nazis. It is proactive self-defense. Your body does this all the time with the immune system.  It probably should not be legal, nor officially sanctioned by the state, as many members (at least 47%) of Team Civilization appear to have poor judgment.  But the punishment should fit the crime. However, if you mistake a member of Team Civilization for a Nazi when punching them, you should go to jail. We cannot tolerate auto-immune diseases. As a wise man once said: “Aim for the king best not miss.”


  1. As has been pointed out, we went to war with the Fascists (and they did start it) and didn’t merely punch them, we killed them, which is objectively worse.
  2. There are other groups which advocate violence through nominally peaceful means. They need to be treated with similar immune system defenses.
  3. Individuals who act violently are already treated this way.
  4. In short, the only thing we cannot tolerate is intolerance.