Surprise! Elon Musk Is Revolted By Transit

Photo: JD Lasica/Flickr/CC
Photo: JD Lasica/Flickr/CC

He owns a car company. And his favored solution for traffic in Los Angeles is to build tunnels for pod travel under the city.

So, really, no one should be surprised that Elon Musk thinks transit is beneath him. In fact, the tech billionaire hates rubbing elbows with scary commoners on buses and trains! He said this week in an exchange covered by Wired:

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.

This is a guy who’s theoretically competing for a project to build express transit to Chicago O’Hare.

Despite a lot of other good reporting at Wired, when it comes to Elon Musk, it’s basically a fanzine, promoting his brand as a celebrity smart guy. When media outlets treat Musk’s every utterance about transportation as a news event, the cumulative impact does real damage.

Actual city and state governments are granting permits and seeking partnerships with Musk and his affiliated transport ventures. But the whole Hyperloop concept would have been laughed into oblivion if not for the aura of genius that surrounds its chief promoter.

Listen to the words Musk says, and it’s clear he has a very superficial understanding of the dynamics of transportation systems. “People like individualized transport,” alright. Until they all want to go the same way at the same time in big clunky cars and get stuck in traffic. The frustration of a traffic jam is something Musk is quite familiar with, and yet he seems oblivious to the fact that his own individualized transport solutions will end in the same congestion.

Driving in Los Angeles (or any big city) will never be the effortless dream Musk would prefer, and neither will getting flung around in underground pods. People are looking for a smart guy savior, but the answers are already in front of us and they’re aren’t high-tech. Move large numbers of people around a big city is a geometry problem that only large shared vehicles, a.k.a. transit, can solve.

Correction: This article originally stated Musk made these comments to Wired. He made them at a tech conference. 

154 thoughts on Surprise! Elon Musk Is Revolted By Transit

  1. “Fact is we’ve tried to shoehorn private autos into cities for the last 75 years with poor results”

    Poor compared to what? If you compare quality of live in ex-USSR cities that didn’t have cars and relied on public transport it is much, much worse. Commute time is worse, housing is worse.

  2. Based on what, exactly? The comment she replied to above was snarky, but not sexist. Playing the “you’re sexist” card makes it look like she can’t stand anyone who dares to disagree with her. For you to say that the readers who doubt her credibility are sexist hurts your credibility, too. Had you thought that maybe her problem is that she is prone to making inflammatory statements without backing them up with strong evidence? That’s not a gender issue; that’s just being a bad writer.

  3. Our transit system as a whole does suck. That’s why I mostly gave up on it and bought a bicycle to get around town. Muni is terrible. Bart is worse. Driving sucks as well. I appreciate Elon for at least trying to make transportation better, because it seems like he’s the only person who’s trying to do so.

    Instead of seeing plans for a better more functional transit system, we’re seeing our transit quality deteriorate year after year after year, with Bay Area transit systems unable to even keep up with population growth. Riding transit has become disgusting, slow, and inconvenient. The rise of private corporate busses and Uber/Lyft was only possible because of the pathetic failure of us not having a viable mass transit system.

    Instead of bitching about Musk trying change things, I’d like to see transit activits trying to fix our broken system by calling out those who are in charge and failing so miserably at making it functional.

    The Bay Area spends more money on mass transit to move fewer people at a slower average speed than many entire countries. Sweden has a similar population to the Bay Area, they spend less per capita than we do and their transit system is actually functional and pleasant to ride. Why are we putting up with this shit? We’re throwing money down the drain running our mass transit system as inefficiently as possible, and as a result we have an expensive transit system that fails to be viable for a vast majority of people who live here.

    At least Musk is trying and he cares about improving our quality of life. I’ve seen no evidence that anyone running any of our current mess of 30+ independently operated transit systems in the Bay Area actually cares. The crappy level of service, the digusting and deplorable look of our entire transit system, and the total inefficient and uncoordinated scheduling have never improved, and have no institutional mandate for it to ever improve. In fact the way our transit systems are separated and institutionally isolated from one another makes it very unlikely that there will ever be any fundamental improvements anytime in the foreseeable future.

  4. What is the Adeptus Mechanicus?
    Further question: When only robots make things, who will buy them?
    Henry Ford faced this question and paid workers sufficiently.

  5. If your commute time is greatly reduced in the “Super-tube”, will you then have enough time to drive to an exercise SPA? I hope so!

  6. a bunch of post-apocalyptic technologists/priests from Warhammer 40K, headquartered on Mars, blindly worshipping their machines and the “spirits” that supposedly make them work

  7. “the way our transit systems are separated and institutionally isolated…”

    And that’s exactly the problem that we need smart people to tackle–it’s institutional, not technological.

  8. Of course tolls on sidewalks are a terrible idea, which is why no one’s suggesting that. The cost of a sidewalk vs. roads, highways, parking lots, is basically zero, and you don’t even need sidewalks if you clear the street of cars. Walking is a basic human right which requires only the most basic accommodation, while driving requires all kinds of expensive engineering and infrastructure.

  9. Musk is a genius who is not entirely connected to reality. He is worth listening to, as he will certainly come up with many great ideas worth following.

    He is also absolutely nuts, so you can’t take what he says as necessarily being useful or possible.

    Remember, he is a guy who named his most famous product after Tesla. Tesla made electricity function as the essential utility it is today, but he also almost married a pigeon.

  10. I don’t think people are opposed to his experiments so much as worried about him distracting attention and resources from projects that would actually work. There are many examples of “leaders” who decline to invest in a transit project because “Uber and Hyperloop will fix everything by then”.

  11. at least admission of bias allows readers to understand the point of view presented. All reporting is biased by background and belief systems of journalists and their news organizations. Transportation news is as motor vehicle centric as “health care” news is about medical treatment. Objectivity is a myth, but fairness and balance is a worthy goal.

  12. Robert Moses traveled everywhere in the back of a chauffered limousine, that’s why his solutions for New York transportation were invariably new and wider highways. Most filled quickly with increased traffic attracted by opportunity and pushed by decreased or degraded transit.

  13. Yes. Watching people can be entertaining and fun too. I once conversed with a bus rider who was slightly disheveled, but highly informed. I thought,”He knows more about things than our Mayor!”, whom I also know. Also, walking to and from the bus is good exercise. Why quit?

  14. Traffic sucks equally whether you’re in a car or a bus, certainly. But I can think of no case where the experience of sitting in your car would be worse than sitting on a bus. If I’m going to be stuck in traffic I’d rather be in my own car.

    Trains are fine though.

  15. Ideally transit would avoid traffic jams altogether, but of course that often does not happen. While there is a benefit of being able to wait out a traffic jam in the semi-private confines of one’s own vehicle, I’ve also found transit offers an advantage by allowing me to watch a show/websurf/email on my phone or just nap, activities one cannot (legally) engage in when behind the wheel. I’d probably call it a wash.

  16. I may not have won the lottery, but I could afford to have my own private vehicle if I wanted. Instead, I’ve chosen to stick with public transit supplemented by carshare, bikeshare, and Uber/Lyft. It’s a combination that’s served me well.

    That said, I wish one-way carshare was available in my city. That would make getting around even more convenient.

  17. Fair point, not having to pay attention to the jam is certainly a point in favor for even the lowly bus 🙂

  18. Walking doesn’t have the many and terrible “negative externalities” (look it up Vlad) that single-occupant — and other private — motorized vehicles have (i.e. pollution, congestion, fatal crashes, social isolation, sedentary lifestyles, water pollution from roadway run-off, noise, etc. etc.). Walking, in fact, is positively healthy! Why do you think that the majority of the most popular, visited cities in the world are places where people walk, and (when they are large), where well-designed, functional, well-operated public transportation exists and is highly utilized. Automobile-centric development and transportation is a real dead-end. Ask the mayor of Paris.

  19. Well, look at Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Rome, London, Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul, New York, San Francisco, Toronto — as well as smaller cities and towns that limit single-occupant, and other types, of motorized vehicles. No one is saying get rid of them completely, but prioritize other modes that are more efficient, sustainable, social, and FUN — i.e. walking, bicycling, and mass rapid transit!

  20. Trump is eager to mine new sites at Bears Ear that have been found to contain tons of Pandammonium. Mr. Zinc is willing to dig now!

  21. If you saw a bus in its special lane zipping past stalled SOV’s, would you consider getting on that bus to void traffic jams? Seattle is doing that, as did Bogota a few decades ago. THAT IS THE ANSWER. BRT (BUS RAPID TRANSIT.) Transportation policy needs to favor such Transit! Buses need to be allowed to bypass traffic jams! Note: walking to a bus is good for you too. Walking to your destination after getting off the bus is also good (for you)

  22. And in the news today we had a report of some apparently crazy guy ramming into a crowd of people in downtown Melbourne, Australia with an SUV.

  23. Its a shame Elon wants to make things easier and more enjoyable. I for one hope that no one has a vision for improving the way we transit. In fact I wish that everyone would be narrow minded and we burn people at the stake for new ideas and new technology!!!!

  24. Geneticists get to work!! Space is the problem, so you must figure out how modern humans can be converted to Lilliputians, using DNA manipulation. Then, we can fit up to 30 “people” in a car. Transit will be totally unnecessary. Since all 30 “people” will be clones, they won’t complain about being next to each other. They will report to the same robots at the same factory, getting rid of the “last mile” problem. GET TO WORK on this, you Wonky Wizards.

  25. ‘Burn People at the Stake’!! Is that post-modern for ‘reward with insane financial gain and personality worship’?

    I see prohibiting any critique of someone because they are smart and have ‘vision’ despite glaring shortcomings on certain issues is a really, really bad idea. You?

  26. The caparison is bad. The present day USSR region is extremely poor compared to other countries which were in the communist sphere but not in the USSR.

    If you want a better comparison, look to cities like Leipzig, Berlin, Bratislava, Krakow, Warsaw….. They have indeed maintained excellent public transportation and are now booming. The problem with the former USSR is that they don’t build anything anymore – they suck things out of the ground and then buy cars from Stuttgart and leather from Milan – it has nothing to do with buses vs. cars.

  27. Hipster alert, typical Musk fanboys…

    Tell us how great it is to only reply “You’re an idiot” when someone have a new point of view and an elaborate study on it, compare to someone with only wishfull thinking like Musk (and also have a huge profit gain to get from it?)

  28. How many people thought Musk was an idiot when he said he would build electric cars? Or how many think he’s an idiot for wanting to go to mars?
    Soon you will see the results of thinking beyond our “limitations”. He’s rich because he pushes the boundaries and isnt afraid to create something new. Ill bet when they made the “horseless carriage” alot of people thought it was insane. If you listen to the naysayers youd go nowhere.

  29. There was alot of shortcomings with the wright brothers first plane, and yet we have hundreds of them in the air 100 years later.
    Inventors are crazy yes. But look at our ignorant president. Who before him could say such ridiculous things and still be elected?
    “I could go out on 5th ave. shoot somebody, and still not lose any voters”
    I say let the man spend his money so i can have a better commute!! If he fails it wont bother me 🙂

  30. Ok, fine. However, this is not the issue people have. The issue is that he is leveraging his private money to acquire public investment buy-in. If he wants to dig tunnels under cities because he thinks he can make money doing so, go for it! Don’t use my tax dollars (full disclosure, I currently contribute zero tax dollars) to do so.

    This article talks about the near absence of criticism from the media about anything with this dude’s fingerprints on it. This is a massive mistake.

  31. How many people think it’s useful to go to mars when they only gonna die after a few weeks? Who doesn’t think it’s useless?

  32. He’s rich because he made a credit company, one with the highest interest rates on the net… So yeah, not the visionnary I see. And for electric cars, many before him did that.
    Ho, and I forgot about the useless and very old concept od hyperloop also.

  33. Simply watching other people is endlessly fascinating! Remember, robots are IDENTICAL, and boring. Humans are absolutely unique and interesting.

  34. Latest evidence: Uber, Lyft, etc. cause BIGGER TRAFFIC JAMES, because they take people off capacious buses and trains! Self-driving cars will do the same. Musk is NUTS.

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