Everyone is annoyed with Chicago’s monstrous traffic. And Elon Musk seems to be super annoyed, as he wants to dig a tunnel under it all. Getting around Chicago is a pain, sometimes one that may give a literal back pain. But Musk’s idea is far from brilliant. It’s downright stupid—not because tunnels are expensive, which, of course, they are, or because he would need a stack of permits to start boring (which again is true), but because his exhaustive scheme won’t actually help. And who can blame Chicago for wanting a little piece of Musk? He and his proverbial ‘Mary Poppins handbag of ideas’ are having a good run—customers clamour to plunk down $1,000 deposits for Tesla’s unreleased Model 3; SpaceX rockets are returning to earth like they like it here; and cities all over the world are competing for the opportunity to host the first hyperloop. So you can see why Windy City mayor Rahm Emanuel is in preliminary talks to have Musk’s latest venture, the Boring Company, tunnel a new high-speed rail line between downtown and O’Hare International Airport. He’s hoping to fund the whole thing through private investment.
You’ve got a bunch of reasons to be sceptical about Boring Company as a whole. Musk’s belief that he can speed up tunnelling technology by at least a factor of 14 is, perhaps, a stretch. And no matter how fast they’re dug, tunnels are unlikely to reduce traffic. If you trust Musk anyway, you still shouldn’t want him tunnelling around O’Hare. You don’t want anyone trying it. That’s because express services between downtown cores and airports tend to be expensive, wasteful and of limited use to all but the wealthiest travellers. Musk has said he thinks he can reduce the currently high costs of tunnelling in part by making digging machines that can run continuously and at a faster pace than they currently do, and by reducing the diameter of the tunnels.
A tunnel wouldn’t reduce traffic. Nor would a new highway, or five new highways. Blame the law of induced demand, which says the more roads you build, the more people come out to use them. Plus, Chicago already has a public transit airport connection, albeit a pokey one: the Blue Line, part of the city’s broader L System, takes riders from downtown to O’Hare in less than 45 minutes. A high-speed rail set-up would cut the journey by a measly 20 minutes. And so it violates the basic rules of transit, which demand: before you pour millions into pouring concrete, make sure you’re building a system that is fast, frequent and serves as many people as possible, especially those who don’t have access to other transportation options.
Before bringing in Musk, Chicago should look at other cities that have invested in transfer-free airport train service with decidedly mixed results. A seat on Toronto’s Pearson Airport connector, completed in 2015, costs $18 more than a ride on the rest of the system, and just 8% of the airport’s passengers use transit to travel to Pearson (that figure includes bus riders). When Shanghai’s express airport Maglev service opened in 2007, it operated at 20% capacity. A $484-million Oakland, California airport connector lost $70 million in federal funding when the government determined it did not sufficiently serve low-income and minority communities.
London’s Heathrow Express transports roughly 8% of the airport’s daily passengers and competes with the Underground, which also stops at Heathrow and connects to a wider network. This Piccadilly Line option is also $20 cheaper. That last example gets to the biggest problem with airport express service: connectivity. Connectivity is especially useful for folks most likely to use airport transit on a regular basis: airport employees.
Someday, we may live at the mercy of Musk’s Mars colony selection process. In the meantime, he should be thoughtful before signing on to any express airport scheme. Be sceptical, too, of Chicago’s promises that any contractor will pay for this tunnel’s construction and maintenance all on its own. Enthusiasm for new public transit infrastructure is a good thing, but exuberance is no excuse for pumping money and effort into fancy-sounding projects unlikely to produce results.