Rethinking The boring Company

Elon Musk’s ‘The Boring Company’ posits the idea that a city can solve its ‘‘soul-destroying’’ congestion issues by digging tunnels for cars to drive through. The main premise is that tunnelling can make road networks 3 dimensional more easily than going up — such as by flying or building elevated traffic lanes / bridges.

The Boring Company is promoted as a technological advancement — where ‘efficiencies’ and ‘savings’, and ‘innovation’ are making problematic transport issues (involving many private cars) more performant and affordable for cities.

Instead of the extra dimension that Elon Musk espouses as the breakthrough, I propose that the extra dimension that needs adding to people’s journeys is not the z-axis in traffic engineering; it is social connection.

Obviously this is not a physical dimension, it is less obvious than that.

Musk has, in the past shown blatant disgust for other people in public transport settings: “It’s a pain in the ass,” he said. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.” — Elon Musk.

To me, social encounters can be described as a rich dimension to any journey. You are moving through space and time that other people are also occupying. This creates plentiful scenarios for encounters, connections, and for growing empathy and cross-pollination of ideas, culture, socio-economic and world perspectives.

Adding a 3rd physical dimension to a mobility network for private cars only perpetuates more of the same ostracised, elitist, inequitable, distance-generating configuration that is already plaguing cities the world over.

Instead of exacerbating the notion of human needs being met by technologically complex access to ever-distant nodes; how can we give greater richness, diversity and varied resourcefulness in human-scale city proportions? Especially when these resources enhance social connection. Many cities and cultures seem to place too little value on physically contextual human connection (unless people are being sold something at the same time).

Making whole areas more mixed-use, multi-purpose, and multi-dimensional to the human condition will reduce the pressure on the physical dimensions that enclosed private transport degrades.

Commoning mobility space

There will always be reasons to travel longer distances than an enriched local area provides for. To this end, the experience of travelling should also provide opportunities for social connection by people if sought. This points to more widespread commoning of more mobility modes. Commoning is: “A organised system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.” — Bolier.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a remarkable natural experiment in revitalising many values of the commons.

The response to the pandemic public health crisis has been a refreshing display of public solidarity in New Zealand, where I live. I hope that this adaptability and cohesiveness can be replicated in transforming mobility issues for the better as well.

I think the pandemic is presenting a powerful lesson in commoning of health issues that have been neglected and deprioritised for a long time. Many health trends have been laser-focussed on an individual health-care mindset, especially where commercial opportunities arise.

I hope that through this pandemic, like with the importance of public health to combat viruses, more cities and countries can start to appreciate other qualities of the public realm — like sociability, mobility, and immotility, instead of thinking, like The Boring Company obviously does, that the world can be healed by growing commercialisation and individualistic gain.

Commercialisation of mobility is weird at best in any case. Often, as soon as a form of mobility is safe, accessible, comfortable and plentiful people are mostly only interested in paying the least for it.

Non-boring mobility

In marketing material produced by The Boring Company, driving on regular ground level streets is compared using a pilot Boring tunnel. The only aspect that seems to be used to judge superiority is time. It is a race. It does not matter that the contestants are travelling from one bleak and boring car park to another, through bleak and boring environs the whole way.

This myopic view that the only rewards from taking a journey can be found at the destination, and the time and spaces between are inconsequential, reinforces the idea that mobility itself is a disutility. Something to be minimised. It implies that it is expected that people feel impatience and delay, that ‘obstacles’ to people reaching their ultimate destination need to be removed.

The Boring Company proposition is really an attempt to sell more cars by producing an entirely predictable environment whereby a private vehicle can travel at high speeds with no interference.

Other qualities of the human condition will no doubt need to be artificially catered to with screens and apps etc. One wonders if the wifi will be good in the tunnel (and free!).

In order to reimagine the Boring Company proposition to deliver a better experience (not simply a faster journey), it helps to reflect on what a better human experience is.

The model described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that an optimal human condition can be found when someone is challenged to the right degree for their skill. He calls this ‘flow’.

Graph showing degree of challenge from low to high on the vertical axis, and level of capability / skill from low to high on the horizontal. Running from bottom left to top right is the ‘state of flow’ zone where challenge is commensurate with skill.

Being in a state of flow means that someone who is engaged in an activity that does not call on them to exercise their skills and engage their attention will fall into boredom or apathy. With even the sights, sounds and smells of street level city life removed from a motorist if they are travelling in a Boring tunnel, it is hard to imagine that travellers will not become more apathetic and bored.

In this way, Elon Musk’s Boring Company really does live up to its name!

Pivoting this mobility innovation will involve looking how to bring more interest, challenge, attention, and physical and mental engagement with their surroundings and other people.

Perhaps there is some way that public transport experiences can further enhance human experiences and interactions.

But what other measures will enhance city mobility by building in social quality dimensions for people, rather than enclosing and ostracising travellers for the sake of point to point speed?

Humans are social, mobile, habitual creatures

The ‘sidewalk ballet’ described by Jane Jacobs in ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ captures a broad appreciation of the often intangible qualities and benefits of a human-scale city. The diversity of a healthy human interaction ecosystem is highly complex.

Viewing the worst in others (like Elon Musk seems to) mixed with fear leads to solutions that separate and distance people from each other. Enclosure of private mobility devices reinforces the idea that others are to be avoided, that our own wellbeing depends on being divorced from strangers and public surroundings.

While likening being on a public train as potentially being in proximity with serial killers, Musk obfuscates and belittles the essential qualities of public social engagement. He appeals to people’s negative qualities; fear, distrust, individualism. These emotional conditions then support his business opportunity to provide a ‘solution’. A series of dystopian underground tunnels with private cars going from a to b with zero engagement with the rest of the city and other people in between. It’s good for business.

The opportunities presented by ‘mobility as interaction’ makes me wonder how to bring more of the effects and qualities of the ‘sidewalk ballet’ to mobility infrastructure and facilities. We can already see evidence of this happening when conditions are good. Places like Jacobs analysed still exist in some cities. People will chat with each other, friends and strangers when riding their bikes if the space is wide enough. Stories of meetings and engagement are varied and rich on much public transport.

I think there are some key areas when this ‘mobility ballet’ could be strengthened. Much of the infrastructure of bikes in cities around the world is extremely lacking. Building space for people to ride comfortably and safely side-by-side in the same direction is one way to enable more to converse with others while travelling at the same speed.

Upright ‘Dutch-style’ bike geometry helps to open people’s social accessibility as opposed to the more closed racing position found with most recreational bikes.

Many forms of public transport are optimised to support commuter peak flows, with ‘off-peak’ passenger numbers. This suggests that there may be opportunities to better facilitate a wider spectrum of ages and abilities. How can public transport systems better enable mobility of children, parents, older people, and the underprivileged and privileged alike.

People seem to respond more positively to social interaction than they assume they will: ‘Interestingly though, when Epley and Schroeder (2014) actively asked respondents to engage in conversations with fellow passengers, they found that they reported a higher sense of well-being than those who sought solitude. And, this even extended to the strangers with whom they engaged.¹

As Enrique Peñalosa eloquently said: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation. — Enrique Peñalosa

The future of healthy, human-scale cities has much potential bound up in making more of the social connection opportunity of people’s mobility. How can we best support the opportunity to treat the time people are moving around as intrinsically valuable, and as a chance to engender greater social connection, wellbeing and city success?

Through doing this course (Alternative Mobility Narratives)I have been inspired to reflect on the deeper meanings behind mobility. It has shown me that there are more valuable ways to perceive the mobile human condition. I have also recognised a departure from mobility as a disutility, that I personally make every day by choosing to ride my bike, is as uncommon as the number of other people out there riding.

Picnics in parks Dixon Street, Wellington, New Zealand.

As part of my advocacy, I sometimes use the saying ‘Demand more!’ — usually when calling for better or more infrastructure for people on bikes. Now I will also use this to implore people in other modes to seek a more rewarding mobility experience, however they travel. And one that strengthens the human condition, rather than degrades it.

  1. Travelling together alone and alone together: mobility and potential exposure to diversity. Brömmelstroet, M., Nikolaeva, A., Glaser, M., Nicolaisen, M. S., & Chan, C. (2017).

Passionate about healthy streets and cities for people. On Twitter as @AxleRyde