For once, Elon Musk has actually had a good idea

Regular followers of “What’s Elon Up To This Week” are bound to be disappointed. 

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Everyone loves to dunk on Elon Musk. From a joke about weed getting him sued to his pathetic (unasked for) involvement in the Thai boys cave rescue, he makes himself an easy target: a cartoon villain too unrelentingly dopey to actually get away with anything harmful. He’s made spaceships and flamethrowers and super-fast cars, all from a brain that appears to have been syphoned out of an adolescent boy. His ideas range from good to embarrassingly bad, with enough new things happening on a near-weekly basis that he has been at the epicentre of global ridicule for the last year. However, over the weekend the Tesla CEO posted about the launch of a new project – one that might, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, do some actual good.

Via his Twitter account on Saturday afternoon, Musk announced that his company, The Boring Company, was nearly finished building a two-mile tunnel built underneath Los Angeles, alongside a sped-up video of him walking the entire path in a follow up tweet. The work on the railway has been going on for over a year, and is a part of a wider plan to build rail lines under the city in an effort to reduce congestion in the infamous traffic hellscape. The enormous tunnel will run between The Boring Company’s headquarters in Hawthorne in LA and will run to a nearby suburb to help commuters get to and from work.

To a lot of people (read: a lot of people on Twitter) this announcement just seemed like the latest instalment in the series of  “What’s Elon Up To This Week” posts: another bizarre and useless invention to give the billionaire relevance and notoriety. However, unlike a lot a lot of Musk’s previous ideas, this one might have a place in the world. And this one might actually help solve a problem that desperately needs solving.

California’s rail system – and, arguably, the entire United States’ rail system – is genuinely and truly bad. It takes roughly six hours to drive between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but takes 12 hours by train, and with budget airlines not really existing in the US like they do in Europe, a one-hour flight could cost you hundreds. The government in California has been promising a high-speed rail system for over ten years, only breaking ground about three years ago and not much being done since. The problem is ubiquitous across the country, and that's without getting into the fact that railways don't even exist in huge swathes of it. California has a rail problem – one that's allegedly en route to being solved. 

But here’s the thing: much like Brexit here, or president-elect Bolsonaro in Brazil, or other national issues engulfing other countries, the US has a lot on its plate at the moment. Dealing with the literal rise of fascism, a President under FBI investigation, and a seeming crumbling of democracy means that things like infrastructure issues often take a backburner, rightfully or not, to more pressing problem. Most governments rarely move quickly on sorting out roads, bridges, and trains, and they move especially slowly when they have real obstacles standing in their way. The chances that California, or any part of the United States for that matter, will solve its dire transportation issues on its own is unlikely – the idea that it might do it soon is near impossible. Outsourcing or even just allowing private companies to carry out this work may be somewhat a shirking of responsibility, but it’s likely the only way these problems will be addressed. And, ultimately, they’ll improve people’s lives in an immediately noticeable way.

The Boring Company LA tunnel is reportedly on track to open on 10 December 2018. Beyond LA, The Boring Company has already been chosen to build similar networks in Chicago and DC. Of course, with Elon Musk involved, we’ve learned to take this announcement with a pinch of salt – whether or not it will work to the standard he’s promised is yet to be seen. But while local governments neglect to do anything about bad connections and high congestion between popular parts of their cities, we should welcome someone trying to solve these problems. Even if that person is Elon Musk.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.