Elon Musk vs. Transit Advocates

Transit advocates never really liked Elon Musk anyway. The billionaire entrepreneur behind Tesla has almost single-handedly made electric vehicles cool and desirable. But as I’ve blogged before, the cleaner cars become, the more that progress undermines one of the crucial arguments in favor of transit: that it can reduce air pollution as an alternative to dirty cars. On top of that, many transit advocates simply hate cars. So the idea that cars can now be an environmental “good” (or at least dramatically less bad for air pollution) is hard to stomach (of course, electric vehicles also include buses).

The resentment has popped up numerous times on social media and pro-transit articles, particularly around Musk’s plan for tunneling underneath Los Angeles. The plan seems to mimic existing publicly funded rail transit lines, as Curbed LA described. But instead of transit, the tunnels would feature private vehicles and larger shuttles with “between 8 and 16 passengers” that would ferry through the tunnels on sled-like “electric skates” up to 150 miles per hour.

Transit advocates largely found the vehicle-focused proposal threatening and referred to it as a waste of money that will not solve congestion and likely only induce more of it. They also noted it conveniently serves Musk’s house and office, insinuating that he’s building it to enrich himself.

The tension then boiled over when Musk recently went on a rant against transit:

“There is this premise that good things must be somehow painful. 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.”

Transit consultant and persistent Musk critic Jarrett Walker attacked in kind:

Musk responded on Twitter by calling Walker a “sanctimonious idiot.” Transit advocates in turn had Walker’s back, questioning whether Musk is an “elitist jerk” and generally amping up criticism of his urban mobility vision.

For my part, I question why transit advocates feel so threatened by Musk’s tunneling plans. First and foremost, at this point it doesn’t involve any public dollars. If Musk wants to spend his own money on an ultimately doomed plan to reduce traffic, then what’s the harm to the public? And if he’s successful, why would it be any more of a threat to transit than the current regime of publicly funded roads and highways? And isn’t there the possibility that his work could lead to innovations in tunneling and transport that might actually benefit transit and related development?

I’d also note that it’s somewhat unclear what Musk truly intends with these tunnels. They might end up being more practical for Musk’s beloved “hyperloop” idea, which in turn might be better suited for goods movement rather than people movement, given the potential danger and risk of nausea in the tubes.

Finally, I think it’s worth acknowledging that while Musk’s comments about public transit are inaccurate (not ‘everyone’ hates riding transit), he speaks for a large percentage of people, like it or not. Check out Eric Jaffe’s article on the subject from a few years ago:

Every transit advocate knows this timeless Onion headline: “98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others.” But the underlying truth that makes this line so funny also makes it a little concerning: enthusiasm for public transportation far, far outweighs the actual use of it. Last week, for instance, the American Public Transportation Association reported that 74 percent of people support more mass transit spending. But only 5 percent of commuters travel by mass transit. This support, in other words, is largely for others.

Public transit, particularly buses, do not poll well or have a very positive image among vast segments of the public, as I’m guessing a transit consultant like Walker knows. The recent nationwide ridership dip proves the point to some extent, as former transit riders are now choosing more convenient options like Uber and Lyft (or purchasing a vehicle or driving one more frequently).

For multiple reasons, we should all want public transit to succeed: it can foster more sustainable, transit-oriented development, it can provide people of all incomes with car-free travel options and therefore reduce pollution and sprawl, and it can enhance quality of life by supporting dynamic, equitable, community-oriented neighborhoods.

But many people have a negative view of transit, and not without good reason. Musk not only speaks for them, he’s speaking to them. And as long as that public attitude and its underlying causes persist, attacking Musk is at best a waste of time and at worst a failure to address some core challenges facing transit.