I know, I know, someone was rude on the internet. But that someone was tech titan Elon Musk calling transit expert (and headways-importance-understander) Jarrett Walker “an idiot” for daring to suggest that enshrining elite preferences as transit policy was perhaps not an optimal solution.
This comes on the heels of Musk’s depiction – perhaps echoing Donald Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural – of public transit as a dystopian hellscape of demonspawn, and worst of all, the other hoi polloi right there with you:
I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time.
It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.
Musk may be 46, but he sounds like a bog-standard baby boomer in this; the sort who might have lived in a city in the 1980s and ridden its crumbling, graffiti-ridden subway for a time before fleeing for the suburbs and vowing “never again” (and yes, I’m aware Musk fled apartheid South Africa in 1989 as a 17 year-old; it’s his tone, not his biography, that’s so troubling).
The most maddening thing, though, isn’t so much that Musk has been given blank authority to do as he pleases, or that institutions are increasingly unwilling to make necessary improvements in the face of reactionary local governments and the specter of autonomous vehicles. It’s that he, like so many others, condemns the easy and obvious solutions that we all already know.
It’s not going to be AVs, or “pod” transit (see: any PRT truthers); it won’t be Lyft’s gradual reinvention of the bus or some sort of underground traffic tunnel; the geometry and spatial capacity of cities will ensure that.
Look at the soaring cost of real estate in proximity to transit:
In Boston, home prices near train stations were about 129% higher than in the rest of the region during the height and trough of the housing market, according to the report. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the figure was 48%, followed by San Francisco and Phoenix at 37% and Chicago at 30%.
This is because in the United States, we have so little of it. The solution: build more transit.
Fixing what we’ve got shouldn’t be so hard either; we know what has to be done and all we lack are leaders with the spine to do so. Adopt Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton as a mantra, implement organizational and managerial best practices from Japan and Europe, adequately fund transit systems, modernize as possible (ATO in DC, CBTC in New York, etc.). Funding mechanisms might include such obscure vehicles as a congestion charge (London, Singapore, Milan), higher payroll taxes, a miniscule but uniform regional tax, general fund monies…this really isn’t hard. Considering the tremendous imbalance in transit funding versus that for roads, the money is there; as with all other obstacles, it’s a question of political will.
Run trains frequently. Pay to keep systems clean and functional. Build extensions. Expand core capacity. Run frequent last-mile transportation. Give buses and light rail dedicated lanes. Widen sidewalks. Deprioritize the private car. In short: devote space to public goods and not private vehicle movement and storage.
We have the tools, but if our policymakers continue refusing to use them, people like Musk are going dictate the terms of the next wave of urban disintegration. He isn’t right about the utility of transit or about who rides it. But given current levels of disinvestment and neglect (both financially and organizationally), we’re trending towards a world in which he is. In which the automobile and an environment built for it and it alone reign supreme. In which fantastical tech solutions ensure mobility only for the well-off and not the rest of the masses (indeed, this absolute gutting of anything resembling a public service represents the ideological struggle of our time).
Letting the lords of tech and their impractical, borderline-offensive solutions determine our collective urban future? That’s the only thing worse than the status quo.