Absolutely the Last Post About Elon Musk, Public Transit, and "Liberty Machines"

Screen capture. Brooklyn Spoke tweet

TreeHugger has previously recounted how Elon Musk is developing his tunnel system because he finds public transit icky, that it doesn't go where you want when you want it. Transit expert Jarrett Walker got into a twitter debate with Musk, who then called Walker a sanctimonious idiot. I wrote about this in Why do Americans (and Elon Musk) hate public transit so much? and found that many of our commenters agree with Musk and disagree with me:

Lloyd Alter is an anti-car absolutist who in a previous article advocated abolishing cars from cities. He feels about cars the same way James Howard Kunstler feels about suburbs and skyscrapers, he wants them gone. He dislikes Musk for creating affordable EVs because it would be alternative choice instead of forcing everyone to walk, to bike, or use public transit.

I first have to respond by noting that I am not an anti-car absolutist; I actually even own one, finding it very useful for trips out of the city. Within the city I choose not to use it, because my bicycle is faster and less stressful and parking is expensive and getting hard to find. I get all anti-car because of the sense of entitlement that drivers have, being convinced that their needs come first, over those of pedestrians, cyclists or transit users. Because to them, cars are more than just a mode of transport, they are "Liberty Machines."

But is a car really a Liberty Machine, or is it an expensive burden? It depends on where you live. As Jarrett Walker notes,

I have previously discussed Walker's theory of Elite Projection, " the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole." He expands on it in the current context in Citylab in What Elon Musk Doesn't Get About Urban Transit:

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.

Streetcar interior

Lloyd Alter/ A not very crowded St. Clair streetcar/CC BY 2.0

The problems come from projecting what happens in a New York subway or crosstown bus in rush hour to transit everywhere. I happen to live in a part of a city where I have access to shiny new streetcars traveling on a dedicated right-of-way and connecting to shiny new subway trains that zip me downtown, all for less than the cost of a half hour of parking. If there are decent planning and adequate investment in transit then the majority of users can have this luxury. Most people in Europe accept this as a matter of course.

Good transit doesn't make everybody happy and doesn't work for everybody, but it works for the majority of people. As Walker notes,

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.

I am still haunted by the death of a cyclist in Toronto last week because it is so symptomatic of the problem: cities are crowded, yet priority is still given to storing cars on the street instead of building generous sidewalks and bike lanes. When you need to accommodate large numbers of people in little space, then storing cars makes little sense. Drilling tunnels underneath for them to serve a few people makes less sense than designing transport systems that serve a lot.