Tesla's Elon Musk: Not a mass transit fan.
Tesla's Elon Musk: Not a mass transit fan. Richard Drew/AP

The Tesla CEO’s recent comments about public transportation triggered a firestorm of criticism. Here’s why.

Like many tech entrepreneurs, Elon Musk is trying to reinvent public transit. But his comments at an event last month, as reported by Aarian Marshall in Wired, made many people wonder whether he understands the business he’s trying to disrupt:

“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.”

When the audience member responded that public transportation seemed to work in Japan, Musk shot back, “What, where they cram people in the subway? That doesn’t sound great.”

These comments ignited a firestorm of criticism from transit advocates (myself included), and some thin-skinned replies from Musk. Urban planning guru Brent Toderian quickly created the hashtag #GreatThingsThatHappenedOnTransit, which is now gathering testimonials from people around the world about wonderful encounters they’d had with “a bunch of random strangers” on buses and trains.

But Musk’s views need to be taken seriously, because many influential people share them. What’s more, many people view him as an expert on whatever topic he touches. If Musk is going to lead an urban transportation revolution, we must all understand the attitudes he brings to the project.

Musk expresses two of the most common complaints about big-city transit:

  • “Transit doesn’t do exactly what I need it to do.”
  • “Transit requires sharing space with strangers, which is icky.”

Note that these aren’t the usual complaints about “failing transit.”  Instead, they attack transit for succeeding. Like an airline, an urban mass transit system doesn’t go to your door, and it doesn’t protect you from the company of strangers, and that’s exactly why it can offer cost-effective mobility to so many people.

Effective transit doesn’t go to your door

Musk complains that “transit doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end.” Of course, we all want to go from a specific point A to a specific point B at a given time. But in an efficient transit system there isn’t a service that does exactly that, because not many people want to do exactly that at a given time.

Instead of doing exactly what you want, an efficient mass transit network is designed to do most of what thousands of people want. It is by being mostly useful to so many people that buses and trains attract lots of riders. And carrying lots of riders is how buses and trains deliver so much liberty and opportunity to citizens while taking so little space.

If you’re really going to replace those services in a dense urban setting—as inventors have been trying to do for decades—you will need to match that efficiency in using scarce urban space. Musk’s “Loop” concept for relieving traffic congestion with a network of tunnels begins by moving people in small pods of 8 to 16 people (or in their own cars, riding aboard electric skates). Even if all the many technical and regulatory barriers could be overcome, this is a much less efficient use of space than subways are today. All those crash-safe walls between travelers take a lot of room. What’s more, a Boring Company video shows you driving your car into a parking space that becomes an elevator into a tunnel—an incredibly low-capacity use for valuable urban real estate. Whole city blocks would need to be leveled to provide enough elevators for everyone to do this at rush hour.

Effective transit is crowded with strangers

Musk doesn’t want to share a vehicle with “a bunch of random strangers.” But the presence of random strangers is what a city is, and what successful transit is. The unique achievement of transit is to transport so many people in so little space with so little labor. Crowding—however much it bothers some people—is the essence of transit’s success.

Overcrowding is something else. When a vehicle is so full that nobody can get on, that causes a denial of service, which is a bad thing. So transit systems want to be crowded but not overcrowded.  They don’t want to leave passengers behind, and they do what they can to prevent that.

This means that if you decide not to ride transit because it’s too crowded, somebody else will be happy to take your place there, delivering the same level of efficiency. So the only definition of “overcrowding” that matters is the one that prevails in the culture at large—the one that determines how much personal space people will give up to fit another person on board. Those famously packed Japanese subways and trains that Musk hates, for example, reflect a prevailing Japanese attitude on that question that differs from the American one.

So Musk can imply that there’s something wrong with transit because it’s too crowded—an example of the Yogi Berra fallacy—but cities and transit agencies shouldn’t care. If they’re crowded, they’re succeeding.

The danger of elite projection

By now you may be thinking: Who cares about all this theory? Urban transit is too crowded by my standards! Or it’s not doing a good enough job of taking me where I want to go.

This is where you have to decide if you want transit to have the greatest possible benefit to your entire city—in terms of displacing car trips and fostering inclusive prosperity—or whether it’s more important that it take care of you.

The most common falsehood about transit, the one that underlies most of the comments transit agencies receive and many of the worst mistakes in transit planning, is this: “Transit would be better for everyone if it were better for me.”   

A special danger arises when relatively wealthy people take this view, demanding that expensive mass transit systems be designed according to their personal tastes. I call this mistake elite projection, and explore it here. Many poor transit investments have arisen from a too-small group of fortunate people assuming that everyone shares their tastes and priorities. They forget that to be elite is to be a minority, and it makes no business sense to design transit around elite tastes if what you really want are lots and lots of riders.

Big cities don’t function without transit, and that means transit has to be allowed to succeed. That means it won’t go to your door, or protect you from the company of strangers. You don’t have to use it, or like it, but if you live in a city, you depend on its ability to attract huge numbers of people while using little space, so that there’s enough room for everyone.   

Urban transportation is not just an engineering problem. First, it’s a geometry problem. Cities don’t have much space per person, so space has to be used efficiently. And technology never changes geometry.    

Elon Musk is a great inventor. His development of battery technology is a great contribution to transportation. The Boring Company’s work, which could make tunneling far less costly, may yield breakthroughs that will make subways cheaper to build. But if you are going to disrupt urban transit, you first need to understand how, and why, it works.

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