Traffic Congestion

The “BORING” Solution to Our Traffic Woes

AKSHIT MISHRA
02/03/2019

How often do we hear the excuse “Sorry, I got stuck in traffic”? More importantly, how often is the excuse seen with a light of suspicion? Traffic congestion consistently thwarts our routines and has become one of the most banal excuses for our offhand delays. A massive global traffic scorecard published by INRIX in 2017 stated that urban population loses almost a 100 hours annually due to the social curse known as traffic jams—time that could have been utilized learning a new skill or watching a Super Bowl game with friends.

TIME IS MONEY

Although the environmental impact of traffic is discussed frequently, its massive financial implications are neglected.

Time is Money: NYC squanders $33.7 billion every year on traffic congestion. Image Courtesy: http://www.dragonfinancial.com/2016/07/27/time-is-money/

For instance, NYC squanders $33.7 billion every year on traffic congestion, which translates to almost $3000 per user. These figures are based on critical metrics such as reduced productivity and higher fuel costs. Thus, the situation is an emphatic embodiment of the saying “time is money”.

THE DIMENSIONAL PROBLEM

When the traffic losses in a city alone are commensurate with the GPD of Zimbabwe, the inevitable question arises that why is it that in today’s world where robots are capable of defeating humans at chess, are we struggling with a fundamental and ubiquitous problem like traffic congestion? Evidently, the pith of the problem is attempting to access the 3-dimensional (3D) infrastructure of buildings through a 2-dimensional (2D) road network. The situation is analogous to arranging items piled up in cabinets on a narrow flat plate—congestion is bound to happen.

"Traffic losses in NYC alone are commensurate with the GPD of Zimbabwe"

Incompatibility of interface is the root cause of traffic. Everyday people try to reach tall (3D) building using flat (2D) roads.  

As such, adding a dimension to road-network is the most straightforward solution. However, this means vertically expanding the transportation network.

THE SOLUTION LIES BENEATH THE SURFACE

The idea of a vertical expansion poses a crucial question—should we go up or down? Both paths have their upsides and downsides (pun totally intended); Nevertheless, boring underground tunnels seems more financially and logistically viable. For starters, tunnels are more accessible through existing road networks. Moreover, tunnels are unscathed by varying weather conditions whereas midair highways are highly susceptible to inclement weather; imagine being stuck 2000-ft in air during the polar cortex with a “part-time gig” pilot/driver—not a comforting sight whatsoever.

PROBLEM OF A SOLUTION

Additionally, midair highways present several daunting challenges such as regulating dense air traffic and providing pilot licenses to civilians. Furthermore, tunnels also have the upper-hand when it comes to pedestrian safety—one would be anything but comfortable with flying-cars over one’s head. Another fundamental issue with flying-cars is the sheer noise disruption that would be caused by the vehicles. It would be analogous to millions of helicopters flying near our buildings 24x7. In high school, we had to constantly halt our outdoor assemblies whenever a plane took off from a proximal airport. I can only imagine the plight of such activities if flying-cars were to become a commonplace phenomenon. Furthermore,  there is no theoretical limit to the numbers of tunnels that can be stacked over each other.  This allows tunnels to alleviate traffic congestion of any asperity known to mankind. But why haven’t we taken advantage of such an abundant resource? Well, because tunnels are not very cheap—at least not yet.

BILLION DOLLAR GROCERIES

Skeptics often ask the inevitable question of money about tunnel transportation, and rightly so because as of now, if we are to utilize the subway tunnel systems as a baseline, engendering a tunnel network to reach the closest Walmart costs a whopping $1 billion.

“A tunnel network to reach the local Walmart costs a whooping $1 billion.”

According to an article published by The New York Times, the cost of the Second Avenue link of the New York subway systems was a preposterous $2.6 billion per mile; scrutinizing these figures exhibits a grim viability for tunnel systems. Figures, in the remote proximity of these numbers would make quotidian vehicular tunnel transportation a distant dream for the public. However, one person thinks “these are crazy numbers” and he has paved way for an approach that would not cost city authorities an arm and a leg to create tunnels.

THE POWER OF 10!!!

Almost everyone who is remotely cognizant about the concept of vehicular tunnel transportation has heard about The Boring Company (TBC). It is another initiative by Elon Musk to disrupt a struggling and stagnant (like traffic) market. He believes that the prodigal expenditures can be curbed by a factor of 10. Moreover, he intends to implement a focused approach to “solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic”. As always, Elon Musk put his money where his mouth is by inaugurating a 1.3-mile test tunnel in December 2018.  The track was created outside Los Angeles for a mere $10 million. Although the cost of an actual tunnel would be higher, TBC plans to mitigate the costs by employing profit-sharing business accords with the authorities.

SMALLER IS BETTER-AND CHEAPER

Now, the most pertinent question is how The Boring company can reduce the exorbitant tunneling costs by a factor of 10? It’s like an incipient phone manufacturer claiming to sell iPhones for $100—seems a dissembling proposition. However, TBC claims to uphold these claims by using several ingenious levers available at its disposal. Firstly, TBC states that creating tunnels for compact road vehicles rather than trains would minimize cost significantly. Firstly, the tunnel diameter can be reduced to qualify the boring expenditures. Secondly, vehicular tunnels would also alleviate the exorbitant costs associated with maintaining subway trains. Ultimately, like any other process, the costs of boring tunnels can be checked by bolstering efficiency.

REDUCE, RECYCLE…., REINFORCE

Although—ironically—these propositions sound obvious and improbable simultaneously, TBC  has exhibited the capability to accomplish these seemingly incompatible feats. For instance, it claims that digging and reinforcing tunnels simultaneously will not only save time but also reduce the financial and environmental footprint of the projects.

Monty Python tower outside the test tunnel. The Boring Company even had a job listing for a ‘Watchtower Guard’

In the case of tunnels, the waste product is the dust generated due to continuous drilling. However, TBC has found an astounding way to reuse some of this dust by converting it into usable bricks. These recycled bricks from the have been used to create a momentous “Monty Python” watchtower. Moreover, these bricks are also being sold to non-profits at a reduced rate.

Kirk, Spock, Bones

TBC has exhibited commendable foresight by instating a tantalizing trio of advanced boring equipment. The company has added two—highly improved—tunneling machines to their portfolio even before unveiling its test track. The successors of the aptly named Godot are Line-Storm (Spock) and Prufrock (Bones). According to Teslarati, the successors are significantly more efficient than Godot as the avant-garde drilling heads engulf significantly more dirt.    

Linestorm-The Worthy Successor to Godot

“TESTING” TUNNELS Although the concept looks formidable on paper, being in a 12-ft tunnel at 125mph is not a very comforting thought. Additionally, the proposed headway of 30 seconds between vehicles raises several safety concerns. TBC has attempted to demonstrate the ability to eliminate some of these concerns with their test track in Hawthorne, California. The track is a 1.3-mile long tunnel consisting of an electrical skate on which the vehicle (currently a Tesla) sits. Moreover, the automobile is constrained to function in autopilot to mitigate the probability of a crash. However, limited or poor accessibility is usually a stifling factor for high-speed travel. For instance, cumbersome checks usually consume majority of the commute time. Thus, moving ahead, all the think tanks for such transport systems would need to take an unprecedented approach to accessibility if they intend on fortifying the mass appeal of such projects.

Elon Musk’s tweet regarding the test tunnel in Hawthorne, CA

ALL THIS DRILLING EVERYWHERE? WHAT IF I GO DEAF?  

As one can imagine that drilling tunnels is not a quiet activity; usually people associate boring tunnels with unsettling images of shaking houses. However, incredibly, tunnels bored at least two tunnel diameters below the surface are surprisingly inconspicuous on the surface. Furthermore, boring tunnels three tunnel diameters below the surface cannot be detected by even industry-grade seismographs. So, NO, you are not going to lose your hearing. 

THE FUTURE OF THE FUTURE

Elon Musk and his supporters had plenty of reasons to rejoice after ending 2018 with a bang. TBC conducted a successful demonstration of the test tunnel and won the Chicago bid. Chicago has announced a rapid transit-link from the O’Hare airport to Downtown as a part of a multi-billion dollar overhaul; this network proposes to reduce the commute time to a third. What this means is that we should have some pragmatic answers to a plethora of questions. 

Conceptual design of the much-anticipated Chicago Project

WITH GREAT POWER…

However, these celebrations carry a heavy baggage of responsibilities as this project elicits a barrage of challenges. The biggest challenge is meeting the financial constraints of the $1 billion project. According to an article by The Verge in 2018, scientists and engineers are skeptical about the budget of the project. They distrust that TBC would be able to deliver the finished product without exceeding the allotted billion-dollar mark. Elon Musk, whose company intends to keep a significant share in the profits from the projects added fuel to the fire when he exclaimed that “If we fail, well, I guess me and other will lose a bunch of money.” On the other hand, the initiative by TBC to accept such a daunting proposition deserves encomium. And if anyone can make such a far-reaching goal a reality, it is Elon Musk with his team of inspired engineers. In times like these, one needs to be mindful about doubting vanguards of the field at every step. We should acknowledge the fact that a paradigm shift does not happen overnight. In the meantime, apart from driving carefully and switching to renewable energy, what we can do is come up with better excuses other than “I was stuck in traffic” for our incessant delays.