Why Do Americans (And Elon Musk) Hate Public Transit So Much, and Love Chasing "Cyberspace Techno-Dreams"?

CC BY 2.0. Washaw via WP/ Subways are smelly and dirty- In 1973

Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit, blames what he calls "Elite Projection."

Recently we noted that Elon Musk doesn't like public transit very much; he said, "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." He is not alone in this; every time we write a story about public transit there are comments that say much the same thing.

People may hold their noses and swallow the pill and use public transit because they can't afford a car, or because the traffic jams are just too bad or because the commute would just be too long if you had to spend it actually driving instead of reading or surfing the net like you can on a train ... but I guarantee you NOBODY likes it.

And that is one of the milder, less racist or classist responses. Buses and subways are always full of crazies, panhandlers, the homeless, smelly people, punks who play music too loud. And most Americans apparently agree with Elon Musk.

One person that we have quoted a lot on TreeHugger is Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit, who has looked at the issue of why Americans are so fond of technologies like autonomous vehicles and what, years ago, Ken Avidor called "cyberspace technodreams" or now, Musk's Boring Company tunnels. The root of the problem is what he has called Elite Projection.

Elite projection is the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole.

Elon Musk was not impressed with the idea, or with Jarrett Walker, but it makes sense. Tunnels, and AVs, are ideas that are beloved by elites that don't take transit. Walker writes:

The mistake is to forget that elites are always a minority, and that planning a city or transport network around the preferences of a minority routinely yields an outcome that doesn’t work for the majority. Even the elite minority won’t like the result in the end.


© Ken Avidor on podcars, an earlier cyberspace technodream, but really no different from today's

So if you have a problem of traffic congestion, the solution for the elite technocrat isn't to build better transit as an alternative; it is to fly over or drill under in some wonderful new technology where you can still be alone in your bubble.

Traffic congestion, to take the obvious example, is the result of everyone’s choices in response to everyone’s situation. Even the elites are mostly stuck in it. No satisfying solution has been found to protect elites from this problem, and it’s not for want of trying. The only real solution to congestion is to solve it for everyone, and to do that you have to look at it from everyone’s perspective, not just from the fortunate perspective.

Jarrett Walker is not a sanctimonious idiot. I often disagree with him but then I am probably an elitist and I love our streetcars and our overspecialized airport train. But he is right about this issue. Instead of swooning over flying Ubers or tunneling Musks, we should fix what we have on the surface to work for everyone.

None of these ideas made any geometric sense as a way to liberate everyone in a dense city, but they appealed to elite tastes, dazzled public attention, and therefore helped to defer investment in the transit that vast numbers of urban people would find useful and liberating. This neglect causes transit to deteriorate, yielding outcomes that further justify the neglect.

It's all about investment, about priorities. In America (and Canada right now) transit is awful because the elites choose not to invest enough in it to make it work properly. Or they invest in the wrong place (like in Toronto) to placate their suburban base. Billions of dollars are wasted and tons of carbon is generated building concrete tunnels when there are simple, cheaper solutions that can be applied right up there on the ground if there were not this obsession with keeping it free for private cars.