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. Once you learn to recognize this simple mistake, you see it everywhere. It is perhaps the single most comprehensive barrier to prosperous, just, and liberating cities.
This is not a call to bash elites. I am making no claim about the proper distribution of wealth and opportunity, or about anyone’s entitlement to influence. But I am pointing out a mistake that elites are constantly at risk of making. 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.
Long ago, when I was presenting a proposed transit plan to the Board of Directors of a suburban transit agency in California, one board member — representing the wealthiest city in the area — leaned forward, cleared his throat, and said:
Now, Mister Walker. If we adopt this plan of yours, will that make me leave my BMW in the driveway?
The answer, of course, is no. But to suggest that this question is a valid test of a transit plan is an extreme example of elite projection. As a multi-millionaire, this man belongs to a tiny minority, so it makes no sense to design a transit system around his personal tastes. Successful transit is mass transit, and there is no mass to be achieved by pursuing him as a customer. Perhaps he could be attracted by a service to his door featuring on-board wine bar and massage service, but few other people would consider that good value for their more limited dollars. Let the for-profit sector give him that luxury, and ensure he pays for its impacts.
Now and then, of course, investment that benefits elites justifies itself as serving the common good. Expediting the lives of business executives, for example, will supposedly attract investment to your community. A specialized transit project will supposedly stimulate upscale housing development that will add to the tax base, even if you could never afford to live there. I am not seeking to open debate on those claims. To the extent that these arguments were right, elite projection would not be the right term. Most elite projection, however, makes no such claims. It’s simply an unconscious habit of assuming that your tastes are a good guide to what everyone will value.
In challenging elite projection, I am being utterly unreasonable. I am calling upon elites to meet a superhuman standard. Almost everyone refers to their own experience when discussing policy. Who doesn’t want their experience to be acknowledged? But in a society where elites have disproportionate power, the superhuman task of resisting elite projection must be their work. And since I’m one of these elites — not at all in wealth but certainly in education and other kinds of good fortune — it’s sometimes my work as well. Like all attempts to be better people, it’s utterly exhausting and we’ll never get it right. That means the critique of elite projection can’t just take the form of rage. It also has to be empathic and forgiving.
Still, elite projection is perhaps the primary barrier to the efficient, just, and liberating city. The city has this special feature: It functions for anyone only if it functions for almost everyone. You can say this about society in general, but only in the city is this fact so brutally obvious as to be unavoidable.
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.
The ongoing disparagement of bus service in urban America has elite projection at its foundation. Large fixed-route buses are the only form of transit that can quickly scale to an entire city while using scarce urban space with extreme efficiency. Yet many urban elites assume (subtly or overtly) that bus service doesn’t matter because it’s not useful to them personally.
During my 25-year career I’ve watched fortunate urban leaders — mostly very well-intentioned — search endlessly for a transit idea that will allow them to neglect buses. One could point to some American streetcars-stuck-in-traffic, “redevelopment tools” which sometimes had no discernible transportation value There are the adorable ferries with tiny markets, and the overspecialized airport trains. Now, the same mistake powers the endless vague promises of tech disruption in transit, especially the mathematically absurd notion that transit that comes to your door when you call it will scale to the entire population of a dense city. (Serious experts have largely abandoned this claim, but it is out there in the discourse, undermining support for transit that actually works.)
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.
Again, we can’t challenge elite projection in others until we forgive it in ourselves. Almost everyone reading this is part of some kind of elite. But the more powerful you are, the more urgent this work is. We must all ask ourselves: “Would this idea work for me if I were in a typical citizen’s situation, instead of my fortunate situation?” Because if not, it won’t work for the city, and in the end that means it won’t even work for you.