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Friday, February 23, 2024

Elon Musk Has a Plan to Save LA Dodger Fans From Traffic

With six weeks left in the 2018 baseball season, the Los Angeles Dodgers are just two games out of first place in the National League West and a trip to the playoffs. But even if they can top last year’s pennant-winning performance, the men in blue may not be the only heroes for the faithful packing into Dodger Stadium. Another Angeleno wants to share in the glory, with his own contribution: Elon Musk.

Getting to Dodger Stadium is a nightmare, even for a city where traffic is a way of life. Vehicles back up for miles. Brake lights outshine the sun. Exhaust pipes spew pollutants, choking up the 110 freeway and Sunset Boulevard, as cars notch forward inch by inch. It’s the sort of inefficiency Musk abhors, particularly when it’s him sitting in the middle of it.

That’s why he is announcing that his Boring Company plans to dig a tunnel to the stadium, through which fans would ride in pod-like electric skates.

The 3.6-mile tunnel would pick up near one of three LA Metro subway stations and run under Sunset Boulevard, ending in the stadium parking lot and making it far easier to take public transit to the game. Fans would pay about a dollar for the four-minute ride, called the Dugout Loop.

This project is just a single tunnel, meaning the service can only run one way at a time. It’ll stage a number of skates at one end and sell tickets with fixed departure times. When fans turn up (hopefully riding the Metro, biking, or walking), they’ll pile into the 8- to 16-passenger pods, which will whisk them through the tunnel. The skates will then be parked at the other end. After the game or concert, they run the other way.

Bookings for seats will be limited to 1,400 people per event at first, about 2.5 percent of stadium capacity. (The company’s still figuring out if it’ll need about 100 skates, or if it can work in batches of 12 to 15, sending the empty pods back to fetch more people.)

Those user targets are unusually modest for an Elon Musk company, but taking a measured approach should allow the company to figure out whether its idea works, and if it might have unintended impacts, like increasing traffic around the boarding stations. And the project complements the public-transit projects that LA has underway, serving a niche use case that probably wouldn’t score well for public funding. (Even at 81 regular season games a year, the pain of a Dodger Stadium commute is limited to a small section of the community.)

But small, incremental change is part of dealing with a municipal bureaucracy. So are things like environmental reviews and careful city planning. The Boring Company is working on that with the City of Los Angeles, a process that could take a year. The Department of Public Works needs to make sure the route is safe and isn’t going to hit existing sewer or water lines. The company will then have to get permits and sign-off from the city council after a public discussion period. The route will stick to public right-of-way, which should simplify permissions. Construction will take up to 14 months, and the Boring Company is bearing the entire, undisclosed cost.

In short, a project of this magnitude requires a significant amount of work and coordination with local government. But it already has one important backer: Mayor Eric Garcetti. “It’s a great example of public-private partnership,” he told WIRED Wednesday. Garcetti is all about bringing high-tech projects to his city, which is hosting the Olympics again in 2028 and is vying to shed its car-clogged image.

Just Get Off of This LA Freeway

The creative nature of the project may come from Musk (who talks about terraforming Mars with nuclear weapons the way most people talk about repainting their living room), but it jibes with LA’s long history of wild-eyed transportation schemes. Even before the post-war proliferation of the personal car turned the place into the parking lot its residents hate today, the city’s sprawling nature, varied topography, and traffic encouraged unconventional solutions.

“Los Angeles has a long history of experimenting with new and alternative modes of transportation,” says Nathan Masters, a public historian with the USC Libraries and host of Lost LA on local public television channel KCET. Before the Angels Flight Railway started trapping tourists in 1901, the Mount Lowe Railway in the San Gabriel Mountains took riders up 62-degree grades and over a dizzying feat of engineering known as a circular bridge. Before Angelenos turned to the monorail to save them from traffic in the 1960s (an idea Mayor Garcetti revived last year), one Joseph Fawkes pushed the “Aerial Swallow.” It hung from an iron rail, was balanced by a gyroscope, and was pushed along by a propellor. Fawkes imagined a vast network that would revolutionize transportation in the city, Masters says, before “practical and regulatory reasons” sunk the venture. (While public officials have yet to vet the safety of Musk’s setup, at least he’s unlikely to mince passers-by.) And when it was first built, the city’s vast freeway network was considered a futuristic way for travelers to zoom, safely and efficiently, to their destinations.

Today, Musk isn’t the only one ginning up a wild ride to see the Dodgers. City officials are investigating one company’s plan to string a gondola between the stadium and nearby Union Station. Aerial Rapid Transit Technologies submitted the idea via LA Metro’s unique unsolicited proposal policy.

The Big Dig

Musk is a veteran of the auto and space industries, but the Boring Company is still a newbie in the tunneling world. The company is about 80 people strong right now and runs on money from private investors, most of it from Musk himself. It has built exactly one subterranean tube, under Musk’s SpaceX property in Hawthorne, near LA, and has plans to dig another in West LA, under Sepulveda Boulevard, where traffic on the 405 freeway gets especially rough. It also has a contract to build a high-speed connector between downtown Chicago and O’Hare airport. Delivering on the Dugout Loop would make those larger plans seem more realistic.

It’s not hard to figure this is a passion project for the beleaguered CEO, who is reportedly facing an SEC investigation into his plan to take Tesla private. The company has shared videos showing employees towing dirt-filled muck trucks with a Tesla Model X, and lowering a Model S into the ground on a car elevator. And because Musk is all about exponential improvements, he claims the Boring Company can make tunneling 15 times faster and 10 times cheaper. Tunneling experts doubt that sort of improvement is possible, but BoCo engineers are continuously modifying their two boring machines, looking to tweak components for at least incremental improvements. The long-term plan is to integrate everything they learn into new, electric, ground-eating machines.

For now, though, the Boring Company is focused on getting the Dugout Loop, well, into the ground, and validating its vision of the future of transportation. And if Elon can take Dodgers fans out to the ball game, they’ll gladly go along for the ride.

“We always reimagine the future in Los Angeles,” says Garcetti. “We’ve always looked for new ways to move around.” Game on.

Alex Davies contributed reporting.

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