The “Chicago Loop” Project May Change the World

I woke up the morning of June 14 to find out the automotive world had changed into a new mobility world.

I woke up the morning of June 14 to find out the automotive world had changed into a new mobility world. There were Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and master-entrepreneur Elon Musk in my newsfeed announcing that Musk’s Boring Company had been given the green light to create a radical, yet-to-be-developed, bold, underground mobility solution from downtown Chicago to the hyper-busy O’Hare Airport.

For decades I have seen highly innovative Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) concepts proposed around the world, yet they have found no support from a major city. Even today, when there are thousands of new mobility companies creating AI-controlled vehicles that drive, fly, sail, float, swim, and even walk, there is comparatively little in the way of commercialization or support. This means the motorist stuck in traffic hell has few meaningful options.

This new express “Loop” service that is proposed by Musk will stretch 18 miles and move passengers from downtown to the airport in just 12 minutes. Innovative Uber/Lyft services can’t move faster than traffic, and taking the train takes 45 minutes.

Musk is digging his first tunnel in LA (and talking to city officials there, as well). The Chicago application is well defined, and Musk could conceivably be profitable with his new service. He believes the service will open in just three years and plans to begin digging the tunnels in just a few months from now.

There are many mobility and urban design experts critical of this idea. CityLab called this new airport link “nuts.” Many feel the system will carry too few passengers to make it worthwhile. But what alternative solutions do these experts have to expedite movement in the near term?

Having spent time in Chicago I can say that traffic there can be horrible. I think of Chicago (and other major cities) with worsening traffic as being like a person with clogged arteries, highly exposed to a heart attack. Musk and Emanuel are doing “bypass” surgery. (It occurs to me that a better name for Musk’s company would be The Bypass Company.)

I’m sure if I owned a home or business above these coming tunnels, I’d be uncomfortable with the project. Who really wants a tunnel 30 to 60 feet below their home? I can appreciate the concern. But given how traffic is crippling life in our big cities, even if Musk and Emanuel are “sketching” tunnels under one’s neighborhood, I expect it’s worth it. If they screw-up, the tunnel can be filled in. And Musk is confident there will be no vibration for these homeowners from boring the tunnels or operating the vehicles.

There are many ways this project can fail. And I don’t think that matters, as long as nobody gets injured.

The proposed 18-passenger mobility vehicle looks under-developed and designed by mid-term college student. Tesla will build these new transit vehicles, which concerns me given all the company has on its plate as it tries to compete with major automakers.

I wish Musk knew more about “local mobility,” as he would see other vehicle design opportunities for this application. I imagine small vehicles being used, which might look like smaller, more compact versions of Local Motors’ Olli autonomous shuttles. The small vehicle would pick-up passengers in downtown Chicago, then drive at low speeds to the station, where it would be loaded on a “skid” to travel through the tunnel. Once at O’Hare, the small vehicle would passengers to their gates. In this model, the passenger never has to get out of their seat for the entire trip, which saves time.

Musk has been thinking of new travel corridors for years, and first proposed double-decker freeways just over 5 years ago. But given in the U.S. there are often just 1.1 occupants in an automobile, this means the typical five-passenger car or SUV travels at only a 20 percent load factor. It makes me crazy to think we would double-decker our freeways for nearly empty cars.

I’m thrilled that the Chicago plan has been given the go ahead. From my perspective, the transportation world has completely changed with the agreement to develop and operate this historic new mobility service.