Elon Musk’s freeway-era-on-steroids anti-urbanism

By now you have probably seen Elon’s Musk’s comments on public transit. Here’s the quote as reported from Wired:

“There is this premise that good things must be somehow painful,” he said onstage at a Tesla event on the sidelines of the Neural Information Processing Systems Conference in Long Beach, California, in response to an audience question about his take on public transit and urban sprawl. “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,” he continued. “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.”

There is so much blog fodder here. It’s of course brought out of the woodwork every bigot who needs to whine about having to be around “homeless people shrieking” (like, OMG, that can totally kill you just like what happened at the Bowling Green Massacre). Cities themselves are assemblages of strangers with varying information about each other and different ways of being in the world. Sometimes that’s awesome, sometimes it’s a headache. We all know this.

And yeah, we understand that point-to-point transportation is a big problem for providing mass mobility services, along with frequency. We got that. We’re working on answers. One answer might to be use all the money you are planning to blow a on stupid tunnel to operate transit more frequently. Just a suggestion from your Auntie Lisa.

Musk is right, I think, about how some urbanists/progressive approach change–“the premise that good things must be painful somehow.” There has always struck me as a strong dose of Puritanism in American progressivism that tends to view any compromise from the ideal solution as sinful. Certainly, cars have gone that way among urbanists. I’ve spent so many years listening to transit advocates jerk their knees whenever anybody suggest better technology for cars with the response “Technology won’t save us!” Won’t save us from what? This mantra to me all has the same smell of speaking in tongues at a revival meeting–totally incomprehensible but deeply meaningful to those in the tribe. It’s been frustrating from an environmental policy perspective. “Hey, can we have price floors on gasoline and double-down on CAFE requirements to push EV’s?”


The result has been some lovely investments in transit underused because gas isn’t priced properly and an urban fleet where innovations in engine tech have gone to needlessly increasing power (bigger SUVs) and more geegaws rather than, necessarily, fuel efficiency improvements.

I can’t even imagine how different American climate inventories would be if we had instituted an aggressive price floor on gasoline in 1990, when I first read about the idea in my undergraduate environmental economics class. It probably would have changed vehicle tech for the better, and it would have changed the relative price between driving and other modes, to their advantage. Of course, technophobic transit lovers aren’t the only reason we can’t get our poop in a group on fuel and engine standards, but they didn’t help by refusing to be interested in better cars at all.

But to the larger point, I think the knee-jerk reactions to tech tend to blind us to our responsibility as urbanists–and by necessity, futurists–to evaluate technology and curate its role in society, cities, and our lives. Better car fuel technologies would never solve the problem of cars in cities, but they would help us burn less gas, and that would have been really, really nice for the last three decades. It’s possible to both want fewer cars out there AND to want whatever cars that are out there to be cleaner and safer.

Getting back to Musk, then, the big, big, big issue, among myriad smaller ones, with his idea here is that the problem it seeks to solve isn’t mobility, per se. Instead, Musk seems to want to solve the problem of experiencing the city in any way whatsoever. Perhaps this is my own bias showing–I hate leaving street level, even for subways, but at least in a subway you can people watch. What Musk is proposing isn’t a public system; there’s no way this thing stays uncongested except via exclusivity and pricing. It’s a private system, and like other systems, it will be a club for the very wealthy.

Musk’s dystopian tunnels are, like many mobility solutions, only partially about the mobility, per se. They are instead a freeway-era logic of separation, a means for the gated community and fortress-mansion dwellers to move from their private spaces to exclusive employment or entertainment venues without even having to see the rest of us and how we live. We’ve noted for years about how freeways allow people to tuck themselves away in their little suburbs and pass by the rest of us without ever experiencing the “places in-between” their home and work as real places with real human beings in them just like them. I can make a similar critique of commuter rail systems with high ticket prices.

But even with freeways, you get glimpses of the world outside your own. Yes, those Orange County noise walls are hard to see over, but even so, you catch glimpses of the big tent cities lining the LA River basin, one version of LA’s “slum*” or informal housing. In Musk’s TunnelWorld, you’d never even get that glimpse. If you travel by car from the Mexico City center (instead of subwaying) to the airport, you will see mile after mile after mile of impoverished people trying to get a toehold on economic survival in the capitol city. Handy-dandy individual pod tunnel world spares you that unsightly reminder of the way most people live in your wonderful market system.

Hell, this sounds great: you can go from your fortress-castle, where FoxNews and the 700 Club tell you all day how you’re the “best Americans” and “God’s chosen” and how we have to have a theocracy because otherwise the Blacks will rise up and demand special rights, to the airport via ELON’S TUNNEL OF GREATNESS where you emerge in a private terminal to take your private jet to another private terminal where you are once again whisked via tunnel to CANDLESTICK BECAUSE I REFUSE TO USE CORPORATE NAMES FOR BASEBALL FIELDS YOU BASTARDS where you walk in through a private entrance to your luxury box where you have a private conversation with the mayor, a senator, and another bajillionaire–you know, guys like you while your pretty young wives talk about whatever women talk about on the other side of the luxury box if the girls decided to come along tonight.

Elon, from the rest of us:

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BTW, my first point stands: the tunnels might actually be quite nice for automated freight movement. Technology is a thing; we have to do the work of thinking about how we use it.

*I don’t like using the word slum, per se, as it’s a pejorative, but I also get cranky that people won’t use the word in American contexts, like it’s something only those African or Asian cities save, instead of being willing to see the material deprivation extant in our own backyards.