Can we mock Elon Musk but maybe stay real about transit at the same time?

So by now everybody has watched the feud between Elon Musk after his dumb comments about public transit, and transit consultant/writer Jarrett Walker, who noted (politely) that Musk was speaking from an elite perspective, and then Musk turned around and called him an idiot. Walker has made good PR out of this, as he should: consultants and writers, like academics, require building up your reputation/brand/platform in this rotten world, and being St. Michael defending transit from Musk-the-dragon is pretty good grist for that.

Between the Coates-West and Walker-Musk spats, I feel a little like we’ve been watching dude feuds all week.

I want to tread lightly because Walker doesn’t deserve the feud moniker because he’s always been pretty polite as far as I can see. But as much as I appreciate it when transit experts like Walker caution us against “elite projection,” I kind of think all of us and our love for transit itself constitutes an elite projection–not just the where and whens and hows of transit, but the idea that transit itself is all that wonderful.

Story time!

One of my favorite students of all time was an African American lady who was returning to school to finish her degree after decades of raising kids and working. I loved her; she sat allllllllll the way up front, she had tons of opinions, readily contradicted me, and never ever hesitated to make me repeat something if she missed it. (Good-o, please do that! If your professor doesn’t like it, who cares? Education is about you, not them.)

In my 245 class, which is called “The Urban Context”, I go through a bunch of standard topics and the rhythm is usually something like “Tuesday, the topic” and “Thursday, the counterpoint, details, the critique.” So one Tuesday I was going over transit, the various vocabulary that students need to start participating in discussions about transit, what urbanists hope transit can do in cities, etc.

She and I were chatting after that first class, and she gave me a tentative look. “Are we going to talk more about transit on Thursday?” She asked.

“Sure” I responded. “Transit has problems, we have a whole bunch of things that are hard to do with it, and we’ve got financial problems, service problems, a whole bunch of things yet.”

“Good. Because all you professors, you seem to love transit so much, and it makes me feel so bad to say anything because I’ve ridden transit my whole life…and” she hesitated, then went ahead, “and my brother gave me his old car when I was about 30 or so, and it was the best. The first time I was able to just drive to the laundromat instead of begging somebody for a ride, after all those years…it just felt like I’d won the lottery with that crappy car.”

We had a discussion after that: among the the things she listed about car ownership was “not having a bunch of old goats leering at my baby girl” and “getting to work in 15 minutes instead of an hour and a half.”

Musk’s serial killer comments are silly–super-elite silly. But urbanists’ devotion to transit is kind of an elite projection, to use Walker’s phrasing, too. Don’t get me wrong: I love transit, I’ve studied it, and patronized it, for decades now. But I’ve always had choices about it. Most of us in the field do, and transit is a lot different when you have the money to take a taxi when you are having a bad day or when you can afford to send your laundry out instead of dragging it to a laundromat (with your children acting up because they are both bored and tired.)

After Musk made those comments, Brent Toderian started a Twitter hashtag called #GreatThingsThatHappenOnTransit. The link is to a story about it, but please don’t stop there if you are on Twitter–go read the stories that have appeared under it. The stories are both charming and informative, and they will make you smile.

The thing is…transit is all those things, from the things my student related to the great things appearing under Toderian’s hashtag. The Hillside Stranglers did target young women who were waiting for the bus in Los Angeles.

Transit is everything human beings in cities are, good and bad, because transit itself is public. And it has its problems as a mobility service that are taking us a very, very long time to resolve. (As I pointed out earlier, we hardly need Musk to inform us of them.) I think we have to be ready to embrace that reality even as we join Walker to clap back at Musk.

Walker is a successful man who has a good Twitter following (and a very nice book; pick it up if you haven’t) in field that many, many people never think about. Musk, by contrast, can throw hundreds of people out of work with a single decision and meets with heads of state.

The dangers that men like Musk pose are so much greater than a disdain for public transit. His remarks reveal a fundamental contempt for public life, rather than private consumption, and that contempt for public life portends terrible consequences when held among political elites like Musk. That should both chasten us and motivate us.