Episode 63: The Emperor’s New Tunnel 


Aaron Naparstek: This is The War on Cars. I’m Aaron Naparstek, and with me are my co-hosts Sarah Goodyear and Doug Gordon.

Sarah Goodyear: Hey there.

Doug Gordon: Hello.

Aaron: Hey. So on this episode, we’re joined by a special guest, journalist Aaron Gordon. Aaron is senior staff writer at Motherboard, that is Vice’s tech and science website. Previously, Aaron was a reporter at Jalopnik and also the transportation reporter for The Village Voice in New York City. Aaron Gordon. Welcome to The War on Cars.

Aaron Gordon: Thank you for having me, guys. Such an honor to be here with you.

Aaron: So this—we have to acknowledge this might be one of the most impressively non-diverse panels in podcasting history. We’ve got basically three Jewish guys, all named Aaron or Gordon, and Sarah Goodyear.

Sarah: Right. Who is—I’m not Jewish, I’m not a guy, and I’m not named Aaron or Gordon. So …

Aaron: You’re really bringing a unique perspective to the conversation.

Sarah: Yeah, I am. I feel very valuable in this context.

Doug: And I have to break the news to everybody and to our listeners—my middle name? Also Aaron. I’m Douglas Aaron Gordon. So this is gonna be really confusing.

Aaron: No!

Doug: Yeah.

Aaron: The new band is Sarah and The Aarons.

Doug: The worst band in history. Absolutely.

Aaron: So look, we’ve been wanting to get Aaron Gordon on The War on Cars for a while, and we finally had the excuse to do it. Doug, do you want to kind of set us up here?

Doug: Right. So recently, Elon Musk’s Boring Company revealed this big project that they’re doing in Las Vegas, where they are sending Teslas in tunnels beneath Las Vegas to shuttle convention-going visitors from one side of the convention center to the other. And this project is pretty ridiculous. There’s no way around it. And we thought it would be great to have Aaron on, especially because he wrote a story about some of the news coverage. Aaron Gordon, I’m wondering if you could give us some background on this particular project, and sort of what was the promise that was supposed to be delivered here?

Aaron Gordon: Sure. So a couple of years ago, the Las Vegas Convention Authority, which runs the convention and uses taxpayer dollars through hotel and convention center fees to pay Musk’s Boring Company about $50 million to build this tunnel that goes underneath the convention center to move people from one side of it to the other. And when it was initially proposed, there were all these fancy renderings of, like, bespoke vehicles that looked like kind of mini-buses with standing room only that could fit, like, up to 36 people per vehicle. And they would move along what they called electric skates underground in, like, a proprietary transportation system that was, like, frictionless.

Aaron Gordon: And, you know, it had all these grand promises for, like, something that was—it didn’t really fit within a neat category of existing transportation modes. It was like, kind of a bus, but kind of a train, but also underground. And it was just kind of all over the place. Anyways, over a series of years since that was announced, The Boring Company has steadily turned that project into a tunnel for cars through a series of announcements that, “Oh, actually, it won’t be on electric skates,” because it turns out that just using existing cars on paved roads is way easier because it exists now. And then it turned out that, “Oh, actually, it would be really expensive and hard to build these bespoke vehicles for a $50-million project. So we’re just gonna use Teslas that already exist.” And next thing you know, it’s just Teslas in a tunnel. And so that’s kind of where we ended up at the end.

Sarah: So when the project was finally revealed in its diminished form, and it got some press coverage, most notably a segment on the CNBC show The News with Shepard Smith. And Aaron wrote an article about that coverage that referred to that segment as—I think he said, “This is the most embarrassing news clip in American transportation history.”

Aaron: But first, before we get to the most embarrassing news clip in American transportation history, a word from our sponsor.

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Doug: Okay, so Aaron Gordon, you have been following this project for a long time, and finally it’s revealed. What prompted you to write this particular story about this news clip in this way?

Aaron Gordon: To be honest, I was more than happy to ignore this project for the rest of my life before this news clip came out, because we already knew what it was before this news clip had come out. We already knew it was just gonna be Teslas in a tunnel. And I drove through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel not that long ago. I know what cars in tunnels look like. But what really stuck out to me watching this news clip was how they stuck this completely ordinary project into the kind of news coverage template of covering a new and exciting invention. And it was really fascinating to me to watch this clip and see them use words that were utterly uninteresting and old ideas, but package it as if they’re reporting on something completely new. And it really highlights the way the media has been credulously reporting on Silicon Valley inventions. and just this kind of like tech culture for a really long time.

Aaron: Okay, so let’s hear the clip. So Thursday, April 8, CNBC, The News with Shepard Smith. And here we go.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Shepard Smith: Well, who doesn’t hate being stuck in traffic, right? After a long day at the office, it’s the last place anybody wants to be. Come to the rescue, Elon Musk, who thinks he has a solution for cities across the country: his Boring Company launching what it calls The Loop in Las Vegas. The concept is simple: take traffic underground into giant tunnels that in the future could stretch for miles across Sin City. CNBC’s Contessa Brewer live in Vegas with a first on CNBC look.]

Sarah: I think that my favorite line in this little bit is actually, “Come to the rescue, Elon Musk!” because—I don’t know, just the idea that Elon Musk is gonna rescue us by building a tunnel.

Doug: The other part I really loved is that there’s a sort of like Kent Brockman, Simpsons news anchor element to this where he kind of chuckles here and there. Like, “Come to the rescue, Elon Musk, [chuckles]” You know? And it’s just like you said, like, it’s some novel idea that one person would come up with the idea of tunnels underground.

Aaron Gordon: I mean, look, Doug, you’re a TV producer. You know how, like, you know, scriptwriters, like, they have to write these intros to set up these clips. And there’s always a way and an art to do it where you’re both teasing the audience to realize why what they’re about to watch is worth watching, but also not be completely counterfactual in what they’re saying. And that’s what I like so much about this intro is there’s absolutely nothing to tease audiences with about why this is interesting or new other than the fact that it’s something Elon Musk did. And so then they just resort to just describing this project using the most ordinary words, and he has to try and say it in this super-excited voice. It’s just like the dichotomy between the words he’s saying and how excited he’s trying to sound as he says it is just—that’s my favorite part.

Aaron: So okay, guys, so Contessa Brewer, she’s live in Vegas with a first on CNBC look at The Boring Company’s wildly innovative, brand new tunnel. Let’s go back to Contessa.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Contessa Brewer: Hi there, Shep. Well, as you descend the escalator into The Loop station, you see the Teslas waiting to whisk you into a tunnel 43 feet below ground. Now you might think, “All right, it’s like a subway,” but this is more like a highway underground. And because it’s Las Vegas, this is also a thrill ride.”]

Sarah: And because this is Las Vegas, this is a complete sham and a way to get money out of your pocket.

Aaron: Guys, before we break this down, I just want to, you know, give our audience an idea of what the visuals are here because—so as Shep is talking, he’s showing us this futuristic, high-tech animated simulation of this glass-enclosed vehicle. And it stops on a city sidewalk, and it descends through the sidewalk to a high-tech tunnel where it swoops away at high speed, okay? So that’s what Shep is showing us. And then we move to the actual scene with Contessa, and she is basically just standing in a convention center basement with flashing lights and Teslas slowly lumbering along in the background behind her.

Sarah: But she’s waving her arms around a lot. So you know it’s a thrill ride.

Aaron: Yes.

Aaron Gordon: If I’m not mistaken, the Bleecker Street subway stop on the 6 also has very colorful lights in it. But then again, that also probably cost $43-million. So …

Sarah: All right, so let’s go on a thrill ride with Contessa, shall we?

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Contessa Brewer: The Las Vegas Convention Center Loop is part thrill ride, part light and sound show, but mostly just a commute across a sprawling convention center.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Hill: If there’s a show going on, and you’ve got a lot of traffic in the convention center, it can be a 45-minute walk from one end to the other.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Contessa Brewer: The Loop gets you there in less than two minutes. Here’s how it works. You enter the station and call for a Tesla.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Hill: The system operates like an Uber or a Lyft, where you have an app on your phone. You say, “I’m here, I want to go there.” Car comes up, has an identifier on it that matches with what is on the app on your phone.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Contessa Brewer: Passengers don’t have to make multiple stops because there are multiple exits. You go directly to your station of choice. The convention center has three, but plans are in the works to build a Loop system citywide.]

Sarah: Aaron Gordon, can you tell us who that is that Contessa is talking to there, and why he’s telling us how great this is?

Aaron Gordon: Yeah, so that’s Steve Hill. He’s the CEO of the Las Vegas Convention Center Authority, the one that paid $50-million for this car tunnel. So it’s very much in his interest to make it sound as good as possible, because it’s basically a tourist attraction. It’s not a transportation system, no matter how much they want to make it sound practical. And so I think that’s one of the—again, like, one of the interesting things about this clip is he has to try and sell this to the viewers that this wasn’t, like, a gigantic waste of money. And the thing he chooses to compare it to is an Uber. And I don’t know, I’m watching this clip and I’m thinking the most innovative thing you came up with is that, like, it’s like an Uber to get from one side of a convention center to the other? I don’t have to call an Uber to get, like, from one side of an airport to another. Why is this system worse than, like, an airport transportation system?

Aaron: And it’s like the problem he’s trying to solve is walking.

Aaron Gordon: Well, you see, when you go to a convention, you don’t want to walk around, you want to be whisked around in a Tesla in a tunnel.

Doug: The TV producer side of me noticed when they say it’s like a thrill ride, the editors did this thing where they added a speed ramp to the video footage. So this thing’s going, like, 12 or 15 miles an hour, but they do this quick, fast forward thing where it makes it look like it’s zipping through the tunnel at, like, 50 miles an hour.

Aaron: I mean, I was struck by the fact that it’s just like any other convention center or Epcot Center or Disney World monorail system that you would see. But the big innovation is that they have added the inconvenience of having to call a car via an app on your phone. You know, it’s like, we’ve basically given you, like, a people mover, you know, which you see in any airport or anywhere else in the country, but now you actually have to call a car to get on the people mover. So there’s like, literally nothing better about it.

Sarah: And also, like, just imagine—I mean, just imagine that there’s a hundred people—which presumably there would be more than a hundred at any given moment, and they’re each going to have to get into a separate car.

Doug: Oh, no, no, Sarah. Four people can get in a car at a time. Don’t you understand? This is mass transportation. Four people, not just one.

Sarah: So you’re just gonna get into one of these things with four—with three other random people that are just standing next to you? I’m sure that people are gonna love that.

Aaron Gordon: Going back through it this time and hearing the clip again, I’m also noticing how much they’re pitching it as, “It’s like being stuck in traffic, but fun!”

Aaron: [laughs] Right. With flashing lights! Yeah, I mean, the whole vision too, is like, the notion that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, like, the idea of getting into, like, a tiny airtight compartment with a bunch of strangers is about the least appealing thing I can think of at the moment.

Aaron Gordon: That also speaks to another kind of pervasive falsehood in the transportation tech sector. When people point out how we don’t need more single-occupancy transportation systems or methods of getting around, whether it’s Ubers or autonomous cars or whatever, the rejoinder these companies always offers, “Oh no, they’re going to be shared rides, which is what is going to make it greener.” And what we’ve learned—especially from Uber and Lyft—is that even when they make those shared rides so cheap that they lose even more money on every single one than they do for their regular rides, people still don’t want them. People still would rather pay more to take their private transportation. Because if you were interested in a shared ride, if you were interested in sharing a vehicle with other people because you are price conscious, you use a bus, you use a subway, you take another form of train, you take public transportation. So it turns out that there really is no market for people who want semi-private transportation. You either want private transportation or you’ll take cheap public transportation. And so I think it’s the same thing here. Like, you know, the idea, I’m sure, is that you would get in these Teslas with three other strangers or whatever to get to the other side of the convention center faster, but in practice, nobody’s going to do that. Like, that’s not what people want cars for. People want cars for their own private space.

Aaron: Okay, so Steve Hill, president of the Las Vegas Convention Center, he is about to lay out the grand vision for The Loop. Let’s keep going with the clip.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Contessa Brewer: I’m looking right now, I mean, there’s the Ferris wheel, there’s the new sphere under construction. The stadium is out there somewhere waiting to be used. Are you saying that eventually this Loop is gonna connect people from the airport to downtown to the stadium and everywhere in between?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Hill: It will. And that eventually is not that far away.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Contessa Brewer: Construction on this loop was completed in two years for a cost of less than $53-million, including the stations. It’s designed to handle 4,400 people an hour with 62 cars—right now with drivers, but soon they’ll be autonomous.]

Doug: But soon they’ll be—that will solve everything. Now you can get a fifth person in the car.

Aaron: Don’t you feel like they buried the lede on that one? Like, wait a second. There’s drivers in these also? They’re not even robot cars for us?

Aaron Gordon: And this is the most—this is, like, subtly the most amazing part of the clip, because Elon Musk has been talking for years about how Tesla is literally just months away from having their cars be fully autonomous robo-taxis, like, on US roads. And he’s been literally telling people to buy Teslas because they will pay for themselves because you could just, like, put them in robo-taxi mode, and they’ll drive around the city making you money on their own. He said this in 2019, that that would happen by the end of the year. Spoiler—it didn’t. But anyways, the reason I bring that up now is because the technology literally isn’t good enough to have them drive themselves in a dedicated tunnel that’s just a big loop. Like, you can’t even make them driverless in that, and yet he’s trying to make them driverless on public roads. Like, it’s such a great gut check about where the technology actually is, versus what Elon Musk and people like him claim it is.

Doug: And the funny thing is is that driverless technology exists for trains. If you’ve ever taken a train at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, that’s driverless. The JFK air train, that’s driverless. Like, this is not an innovative thing. It’s just a worse, diminished version of an automated train.

Aaron Gordon: So one other thing I should add, you know, with Steve Hill talking about how very soon the Teslas will drive themselves is that the Las Vegas Convention Authority decided to fund this project as opposed to put more money into an existing mode of transportation in Las Vegas called the Las Vegas monorail that is a driverless train. It exists. Las Vegas already has one. And the Las Vegas monorail actually declared bankruptcy after the Tesla tunnels were funded because it would no longer have the revenue source—this was before the pandemic, by the way—would no longer have the revenues to keep functioning because the Las Vegas Convention Authority basically said, “No, we want this other project instead.”

Sarah: So is this free? Like, is this free to the user?

Aaron Gordon: I believe it is, yes. They haven’t—I don’t know of any cost associated with it so far, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented if they made it free at the start as like a tourist attraction and then started to charge for it down the road. That’s often what happens when convention authorities or theme parks or whatever introduce new rides, which is essentially what this is.

Doug: So Aaron Gordon, you mentioned theme parks. And what struck me about the entire segment is that, in essence, this is just like a giant corrugated metal box in the ground. And what makes it interesting is that they’re just flashing lights. Like, to me, it sort of looked like a nightclub if you happened to go there at 10:00 in the morning and saw, you know, with all the lights on. Or I immediately thought of Space Mountain in Disneyland, which is essentially just a roller coaster that’s in the dark with a lot of flashing lights. And when they actually turn the lights on, it is the most unimpressive thing in the world. It’s actually not that great a roller coaster by itself, but it’s the lights and the darkness and the sound that make it really interesting. So Aaron Naparstek and I actually compiled a list of capacity of theme park rides to see how this stacks up.

Aaron: Well so, okay, so Contessa tells us that the new Elon Musk tunnel can move 4,400 people an hour, okay? With 62 cars an hour.

Doug: Space Mountain can process up to 2,500 people per hour if they are running all 11 or 12 cars that go through the roller coaster. As well as the Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover, which you might have seen. It’s this, like, slow-moving thing on a second story in Tomorrowland.

Aaron: Oh, yeah.

Doug: That moves 4,800 people per hour.

Aaron: So Tomorrowland is a little better. So Aaron Gordon, you write a ton about construction costs of transit in the US and elsewhere. What’s your take on the sort of like people moved per dollar aspect of this tunnel?

Aaron Gordon: Well, I’m going to admit that at first I was a little fooled. I saw the costs, and I actually had a moment where I thought, “Well, that sounds pretty good. Is that actually impressive? Like, are they burying the lede here? Is this actually a real innovation that Elon Musk has stumbled upon?” And I started asking around …

Aaron: And I’m sorry, Aaron, you’re saying that because $53 million is actually pretty cheap to build a tunnel in the United States, right?

Aaron Gordon: Yeah, good point. I should clarify that. I thought this because $53 million for essentially two tunnels that total a combined two miles is pretty cheap by US standards, or at least sounds pretty cheap by US standards. And when you compare it to US mass transit costs for other tunneled systems, the really expensive ones in New York can be up to $2.5 billion per mile. And not every city is that expensive, but generally in the US, if you’re building mass transit for $100 million or less per mile, you’re doing really, really well.

Aaron Gordon: So I’m looking at these numbers and I’m saying, “Wait, they did a tunneled—they built two miles of tunnel for $50-million. That’s pretty cheap,” I thought. So I asked around to some transit experts I know, who most—they didn’t really want to be named in the article because Elon Musk’s fanboys can be pretty brutal online. And basically, they told me it’s really not that cheap. It’s really not an accomplishment. And the reason is because this project doesn’t build any of the most expensive stuff. It’s only doing the really cheap stuff. Digging the tunnels is actually not the expensive part of building tunneled mass transit. The expensive part of tunneled mass transit are the stations, is ventilation, is emergency exits and those kinds of things. Now when you’re building a station underground for this Tesla tunnel project, it’s literally just a big hole in the ground with a ramp down to it, which is very cheap to build compared to mass transit stations, which in the US have mezzanines, have stairways, entrances, exits, elevators, platforms, all the equipment for the trains themselves. So that’s where all the costs are. And so this project doesn’t have any of those. So when you look at the overall cost, it’s a bit deceiving to compare it to mass transit costs.

Doug: So essentially, they just dug, like, the basement of a skyscraper, didn’t build the skyscraper and put a roof on top.

Aaron Gordon: Right, exactly. And one of the things kind of digging into one of those points a bit deeper, emergency exits and ventilation shafts are deceptively huge cost drivers for mass transportation tunnels, or tunnels of any kind really in the US. And I don’t know if this system has those. You watch the video, and it’s really not clear if they’re there. I mean, obviously, the video is highly edited and doesn’t have a ton of footage of the tunnel, so I don’t want to say definitively one way or the other. But I did ask the Las Vegas Convention Authority and the Las Vegas Department of Public Works, and the convention authority never responded, unsurprisingly. And the public authority basically said, “We don’t want to have anything to do with this project. Please don’t ask us about it ever again.” They didn’t literally say that, but it was basically very terse, like, we just have nothing to do with this project. Don’t ask us. So if they didn’t build those things, that’s another reason why it’s so cheap. But it’s not like mass transportation systems can just not build them.

Sarah: Yeah, I got to say, that was the first thing I thought of when I watched this video, was I thought about that Tesla that blew up in somebody’s driveway not that long ago. And I was imagining what would happen if one of these Teslas blew up and caught on fire in this tunnel. And I was really wondering what the plan was for if that happened.

Doug: There is no plan. Yeah, yeah.

Sarah: There may not be a plan. [laughs]

Aaron: No, there’s no plan. No, I mean, look, just building on what Aaron Gordon was talking about with the kind of like, the cheapness of this tunnel, to me, like, when I was watching this video with the flashing lights and the silly newscasters kind of doing their, “Hey, we’re showing you something innovative,” this really felt to me like it could be an emperor’s new tunnel moment for Elon Musk. Like, we can all see that this is bullshit. Like, we can—like, the flashing lights do not disguise the bullshittiness of this project. And I do wonder if this—to me, it felt like this could be the beginning of the end of the Elon Musk myth, perhaps. I mean, it so thoroughly doesn’t stand up to any kind of real scrutiny. I don’t know. What do you guys think?

Sarah: But isn’t part of the point that it’s not getting any real scrutiny on kind of the mass media level? It’s on the contrary being presented as, you know, these people, this CNBC clip is, to however many viewers they have, presenting it exactly the way that Elon Musk wants them to. And it’s fulfilling its real function which, despite all the statistics and numbers and whatever, the real function of this thing is to be a big ad for The Boring Company and the projects that he wants to get contracts for all over the country and all over the world, right?

Doug: That is a perfect segue to the next clip. Let’s do that.

Sarah: I was trying for that.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Contessa Brewer: And what happens in Vegas likely won’t stay in Vegas.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Hill: Any place that has congestion issues needs to move people, and really can’t just keep expanding roadways, is going to want to look at a system like this because it really makes a difference.]

Aaron Gordon: This system is a roadway! That’s all it is! It’s a roadway!

Aaron: They admitted it. They admitted it.

Aaron Gordon: That’s what I mean when I said at the beginning that this clip is just such a perfect encapsulation of the way people have credulously been talking about Silicon Valley innovations for decades. Like, they want to do the same thing here. You can see it’s so deeply ingrained in the way they talk about this stuff. They’re hitting all the beats. We used to be doing something a certain way. Now there’s this new fancy app or technology, and we’re gonna start doing it a better way because it solves all the problems the old way. And it’s such a success here, and we’re gonna do more of it. And then it’s gonna spread elsewhere because anyone who has this super basic problem will have it solved by this new technology. And they have that narrative down so pat, that they’re trying to sell it about something that is quite obviously the old problem that they’re trying to solve. It’s a giant logical loop. It’s the old problem is traffic because of cars on roads and there are too many of them, so we’ve solved that problem by creating more roads with more cars. And other cities will want this too, because they also have the problem of traffic that can be solved with our system: more roads and cars. And it’s just like they can’t—yeah, I’m done.

Doug: [laughs]

Aaron: Keep going! Okay, so we’re almost done here. Let’s put this CNBC segment out of its misery. Here we go.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Contessa Brewer: Look, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, DC to Baltimore. Hey, Los Angeles to Las Vegas, that’s a four hour-plus drive that stretches into a nine-hour parking lot on some days. All of this is under consideration for a loop. In Las Vegas, more than 40 destinations have raised their hands, saying, “Yep, we want a station. We’ll build it.” They’re thinking, “If you build it, they will come.”]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Shepard Smith: And I bet they will. Contessa, thank you.]

Doug: Oh, man. No.

Aaron: I bet they will.

Doug: Thank goodness it’s over.

Aaron: Aaron Gordon, like, is there any chance that this thing is gonna happen? Like, cities around the country are really gonna start building Boring Company tunnels for Teslas?

Aaron Gordon: I really don’t know. I mean, I would love to sit here and say, “Obviously not, because this is obviously just what cities already do with their road expansion plans.” Like, it’s not different in any way from, you know, Texas Department of Transportation constantly expanding highways, you know, and just what cities have done forever. But these are exactly the types of things that politicians and bureaucrats are very susceptible to, which is doing the same thing they’ve always done in a slightly different way. And I worry that because it has the Elon Musk brand seal of approval, it’ll provide just enough political cover for them to do it.

Aaron Gordon: That being said, it won’t be for everywhere. Like, I think it will definitely be like some places find it more appealing than others. Hilariously, one of the municipalities that seems to be most enthralled by this is Miami’s new mayor who wants to be, like, super—he’s trying to, like, recruit all these tech companies to come to Miami. The reason why this is so hilarious is Miami is mostly made of limestone. And anyone who’s even remotely familiar with limestone knows digging tunnels in it is extremely hard. And the idea that they could do this there for cheap or even that it would be feasible and done within a time frame where it would make sense given the way climate change is about to—and currently—ravaging that city, it’s just all so ridiculous.

Sarah: Yeah, I was gonna say it’s not only limestone, it’s limestone that’s being infiltrated by seawater increasingly, like, every day. So …

Aaron Gordon: Yeah, it’s crazy. I mean, I do think there’s an element of this where, like, this was definitely a project that could only have begun in Las Vegas, and I’m hopeful it will stay there because I do think most cities are realizing that digging expensive car tunnels is a tried and failed method of relieving congestion.

Doug: You know, I watched this clip and we’ve been laughing a lot, but there’s part of me that is so utterly depressed watching it, because, Aaron, you had mentioned climate change, and obviously this is meant to hopefully solve congestion. And we have all these massive problems that we need to fix. And they’re gonna require, like, really deep policy, all kinds of new ways of thinking about how we fund our biggest priorities. And instead, our mainstream news media is just like, “Ooh, shiny!” Like, you dangle a donut with sparkles on it. It really makes me kind of lament and despair for the prospect of actually having serious discussions in this country. In a large scale way, at least.

Aaron Gordon: Yeah, I think with the US, when it comes to transportation issues, you really have to take the victories where you can get them. And one of the small positives I took away from this whole affair is that one, most of the reporting around this news clip—because, of course, the reveal of this tunnel was done through this news clip, so it’s kind of hard to differentiate the two. Most of the coverage of it was pretty mocking. Like, I didn’t see a lot of serious coverage being like this news clip should be taken seriously, basically was not a form of coverage that I saw a lot of.

Aaron Gordon: And I will also say that, having written a lot about Elon Musk over the years, his acolytes can be pretty aggressive in responding to criticism of Elon Musk. He has fanboys, and they are not shy about voicing themselves. I did not get a lot of negative reaction to this article. Like, this was one that I think even Elon Musk’s most fervent supporters understand is not one of his most resounding victories. I think there’s a way to look at this clip and see it as the dying embers of the way we used to talk about things, rather than the widespread continuation of continuing to cover them the same way.

Aaron: I had a different—I had the opposite reaction to you and Doug in some ways. I did feel like this could be a moment where we start to see the mask coming off of Elon Musk.

Aaron Gordon: I will say that I think Elon Musk’s appeal to a lot of people is not that he’s always right, but that he’s always trying. And so I think the fact that this project is quite obviously silly is not going to dissuade many people who think Elon Musk is a genius from continuing to believe so. Because one of the things I most often hear about why Elon Musk should be celebrated as an American entrepreneur is not that he’s always right, but that he’s always trying something new, that he’s always taking risks, and that that’s what separates him and makes him laudable, as opposed to us mere commentators who never try anything and have never worked an honest day in our lives, and et cetera, et cetera. But so that’s just to say, I think the fact that this project clearly is silly is not gonna stop people from continuing to believe that Elon Musk is someone worth paying attention to, someone who’s on the vanguard of what’s great and brilliant because, okay, so he tried something and it doesn’t work. That’s what great entrepreneurs do. Now he’s just gonna go on and try something else and learn from it.

Sarah: Yeah. And I think what’s dangerous about him is that he just feeds this very American desire for the guy, the man, who is going to swoop in, and with his brave risk-taking, he’s gonna save the day. And without him, nothing can happen.

Aaron: And I mean, it’s having real world consequences, too, right? I mean, you see transit projects, you know, going down the drain because people think, “Oh, let’s just wait for robot cars and electric cars and Elon Musk’s tunnel.” And I think this stuff is having a kind of a negative real world consequence, you know, when it comes to just funding transit and maintaining transit.

Aaron Gordon: So I wanted to ask you guys a question, because as I was watching this clip—and I thought you guys would be the perfect ones to ask this to. As I was watching this clip, I kind of had a thought, which was, how would I feel about this project if, instead of being a tunnel for Teslas, it was a tunnel for bikes or for pedestrians or for any combination of bike pedestrians you want? I guess what I’m trying to get at is, how much of what is ridiculous about this project is the way it’s being sold or what’s moving through it?

Sarah: I mean, I got to say I would not want to see this project regardless of what was moving through it, because if it were for bikes and pedestrians, it is so over-engineered. It is just like, bikes and pedestrians can move along the surface of the planet quite easily in the Las Vegas area. If it’s a question of that it’s too hot, you know, maybe there could be shade structures. I don’t know. But, like, the idea that you need to bore a tunnel through the Earth for people to walk across a two-mile expanse is just—I do not support this idea.

Doug: I tend to think that things like tunnels for bikes or, like, the Skyway in Minneapolis, even though they’re billed as infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians, ultimately they’re just another form of car infrastructure. It’s just keep the bikes and the pedestrians away from the roads. They don’t have a right to be there, so let’s build this really expensive pedestrian bridge for them, for example. So, you know, I would watch something like that and just say, “Well just fix the streets. How hard could this be? Why are we spending $50-million digging a tunnel when I have to take a ramp down there and then go through this narrow thing?” I probably could just—it’s probably just a straight shot across on the nearest roadway. But Las Vegas, like so many Southwestern sprawl sunbelt cities, is just car sewers everywhere. So that would be an impossible thing to ask for. And so you can see why someone might sell a bike tunnel like this. On the other hand, if we got to a place where CNBC and Shep Smith and Contessa Brewer were celebrating the opening of a $50-million bike tunnel in Las Vegas, I might think that was a big cultural moment. So I don’t know.

Aaron: And exactly. I mean, to your last point, Doug, I mean, we live in a political system that really rewards expensiveness and the spending of absurd sums of money.

Doug: Yes.

Aaron: And, you know, wild construction costs. And I mean, we’ve joked about this before, but if you could make bike infrastructure be really expensive, in a funny way, you might actually probably get more bike infrastructure in this country. So that’s my only—the only thing I can think of that could be a pro-tunnel argument.

Aaron Gordon: I mean, someone who understood that really, really well was Robert Moses, as I’m sure you guys know. He always inflated the cost estimates of his projects, assuming that he wouldn’t get all the money he asked for. But since he inflated the costs, if he got less than he asked for, it would be enough to build it. And I do think—I thought of this question also because I just read On Bicycles: A 200-Year History of Bicycles in New York City by Evan Friss, I believe his name is.

Doug: Yeah, Evan Friss.

Aaron Gordon: Yeah, yeah. And the idea of creating elevated bike paths in New York that would basically go over the streets so that bikes wouldn’t be on the same plane as vehicles or before, you know, motor vehicles, street traffic in general, goes back to the late 1800s. And so there’s always been this idea, you know, controversial to be sure, that maybe bikes should be separated from the rest of street traffic that predates the automobile. And I thought that was actually pretty interesting to consider within the context of this project, because you can almost imagine a way in which bicycles are a respected and widely used form of transportation, and this tunnel is built because it would genuinely be the best way to get people from one side of the convention center to the other, and not expose them to Las Vegas’s summer heat in the middle of the day. I’m not saying that would automatically make the project a good idea just because people would be considering it, but I don’t know. It’s just I find it revealing sometimes—and a good way to test my own prejudices—to think about, what if car projects were proposed as bike projects, and how would I feel about them then?

Sarah: Yeah, that’s good. And actually, I have been thinking about, there is a bike tunnel in Rotterdam, I believe, that goes under the harbor. And that was a pretty big project that they did. And I remember looking at it admiringly. So …

Doug: And to be fair, you can fit four people in a Bakfiets. So the capacity of that thing is exactly the same as the Tesla tunnel. So that’s pretty good.

Aaron: On that note, thanks to our guest, Aaron Gordon. Aaron, thank you so much for coming on The War on Cars today.

Aaron Gordon: Yeah, it was a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me, guys.

Doug: Elon Musk, if you are listening and you disagree with anything that you heard, you’re free to come on The War on Cars anytime you want. Do us a favor, don’t tweet anything about us. We don’t want those fanboys coming.

Aaron: Oh, yeah. That’d be horrible.

Sarah: And Elon, if you or anyone else for that matter, like what we do at The War on Cars, please become a Patreon supporter. Starting at just $2 a month, you’ll get stickers and access to exclusive episodes. You can head to thewaroncars.org, click “Support us,” and sign up today.

Aaron: Thanks to our top Patreon supporters: the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York, Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Drew Raines and Virginia Baker.

Doug: Don’t forget, our friends at Cleverhood are offering War on Cars listeners 25 percent off the purchase of stylish rain gear for walking and cycling. Just go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, enter code “waroncars” at checkout, and you’ll get your discount.

Sarah: You can also check out the official War on Cars store, and get T-shirts, new stickers and all kinds of new merchandise. Visit thewaroncars.org/store.

Aaron: Yeah, we’ve got a new tote bag.

Sarah: It’s almost a veneer of public radio respectability if we have a tote bag, right?

Doug: I’m still lobbying for calling it the Aaron Napper-sack. I don’t know why we’re not doing that, but come on.

Aaron Gordon: Yeah, I don’t either, to be honest. You gotta do it!

Aaron: We can do it!

Sarah: Okay.

Aaron: Okay. Anyways, this episode was edited by our own Doug Gordon.


Doug: Hey!

Aaron: Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Design. I am Aaron Naparstek.

Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon. And this is The War on Cars.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Colbert: How long before we could turn Mars into someplace where we could live?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: It is a fixer-upper of a planet. So first you’re gonna have to live in transparent domes, but eventually …]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Colbert: Yes, we’re going to be huffing each other’s stank.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: Yeah, but eventually you can transform Mars into an Earth-like planet.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Colbert: How would you do that?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: You’d warm it up. Just warm it up.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Colbert: With a blanket? Or with what? How can you warm Mars up? You know, it’s long way away from the Sun.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: There’s the fast way and the slow way.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Colbert: Okay. Give me the—give me the fast way.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: The fast way is drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Colbert: You’re a supervillain! That’s what a supervillain does!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elon Musk: Yeah.]