Beating the snail

May 31, 2017

Banality, soul-saving and the pervasive undercurrent of all transportation work

“One of the most soul-destroying things is traffic. It takes away so much of your life. It’s horrible.”


This was Elon Musk discussing in a recent TED Talk his “hobby-level” interest in developing a 3-D network of underground tunnels as a means of alleviating traffic congestion and saving time.

I don’t generally go in for TED Talks all that much. The spectrum between curious and informative (Pico Iyer did one on the “Art of Stillness” that is worth seeking out), and eye-glazing and frankly idiotic is far too wide. (I don’t need someone showing me how to dry my hands with one paper towel.) But Musk is worth hearing out—not for least of which reasons is his ability to reason. His method of vision is not careless or haphazard, despite the fact that he is looking sometimes so far into the future that the realities he espouses will come, if at all, long after his own lifetime has expired.

As for the statement above, it may seem so obvious an observation as to be banal, but its banality is precisely what makes it ubiquitous. It is, in fact, at the base of all mobility-based developments and experiments and research, even if it’s not expressed directly. After all, setting aside religious implications, this is the only life we’re ever going to get, and as one ages wasted time can begin, insidiously, to haunt you.

If you really think about that fact, what else becomes banal? Cost. What it costs, will cost, might cost to put novel ideas like high-speed tunnel-based mobility (or high-speed rail, or autonomous vehicles, or platooned long-haul trucking, or UAV-based monitoring and delivery servicing, or a persistent Vision Zero protocol that actually works) into action.

In this sense, such a goal is not unlike a mountain or an ancient deep-sea wreck rumored to contain antiquities of unspeakable value: It is there, waiting; it is just a matter of going.

This edition of TM&E is not quite as ambitious as all that, but at its base, Musk’s bravo statement serves as the underlying synecdoche for the disparate aspects of transportation management and problem-solving it presents.

Developing a connected environment in Tampa, Fla.; a community and safety focus in bike-friendly Portland, Ore.; cracking the first/last mile nut in Utah; rail expansion in Denver; using modeling tools to expand rail service offerings in congested urban locales—the subsurface current to all these interesting discussions is how can we waste less of our lives to things outside our control. How can we rescue a sliver of soul?

At one point in his TED discussion, Musk cited Gary the Snail from the children’s animated television series Spongebob Squarepants as moving 14 times faster than present tunnel boring technology. “Our goal,” he said with a straight face, “is to beat Gary.”

Or in other words, to let our reach exceed our capacity. How else does capacity grow?


Budzynski is managing editor of TM&E.