Why Write About Elon Musk?

Two crucial bits of news about Elon Musk:

Aaron Gordon at Jalopnik lays on the irony so I can stay above the fray:

Yes, for those keeping score, in a mere two years we’ve gone from a futuristic vision of electric skates zooming around a variety of vehicles in a network of underground tunnels to—and I cannot stress this enough—a very small, paved tunnel that can fit one (1) car.

The video’s marketing conceit is that the car in the tunnel beats a car trying to go the same distance on roads. You’ll never believe this, but the car that has a dedicated right of way wins. Congratulations to The Boring Company for proving dedicated rights of way are important for speedy transportation, something transportation planners figured out roughly two centuries ago. I’m afraid for how many tunnels they’ll have to dig before they likewise acknowledge the validity of induced demand.

In other words, as I wrote three years ago, Musk may be brilliant at physics but he often doesn’t seem to understand geometry, or at least not without doing expensive experiments to rediscover it.

Why even write about Elon Musk again?  When Elon Musk insulted me on Twitter over a year ago, I had a brief rush of media fame, including interviews on the BBC and Fox Business.  Maybe I’m just addicted to that.  Evidence against this theory:  I’ve written little about Musk for over a year since that brief moment of fame.  One of my worst nightmares is that I die before doing anything else that gets that much attention, so that Elon Musk’s insult dominates my obituaries.

No, the real utility of Elon Musk is that he presents himself as an extreme example of elite projection.  I defined that term, here, as “the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole.”

When he was first promoting his mysteriously cheap tunnels, he talked about how much he hated traffic personally.  So he invented a tunnel that might get him and a few other billionaires out of traffic, but whose capacity was so low that it couldn’t possibly be relevant to the volume of travel in a big city.  As always inefficiency is inequality.  Only an efficient solution (in terms of both space and money) can be made available to everyone.

So don’t confuse elite projection with elitism. The problem with elite projection isn’t that it’s an elite point of view.  The problem is that it doesn’t work.

Why have I devoted my career to fixed public transit, rail and bus?  Because unlike Musk’s tunnels, or streetcars that are slower than walking, or “Ubering your transit system,” or fantasies of universal microtransit, fixed transit scales.  When it’s allowed to succeed, it’s a supremely efficient use of both money and space.  Bus service, especially, is cheap enough that you can have a lot of it, everywhere, if you decide you care about liberating lots of people to move around your city.  And if you want a city that’s equitable and sustainable remember: if it doesn’t scale, it doesn’t matter.

So no, I’m not interested in Elon Musk for his own sake.  But ideas are more exciting when we put faces and stories to them.  So if Elon Musk wants to be the face of elite projection, I’m grateful for his rhetorical help.  Should we call the phenomenon Muskism.  Muskismo?

21 Responses to Why Write About Elon Musk?

  1. Federico May 25, 2019 at 2:12 pm #

    Another bit: His cheap underground lanes are not so cheap if they’re safe


  2. Lloyd Alter May 25, 2019 at 2:49 pm #

    You don’t need to worry about your elon musk stuff being your epitaph. This post will be.

  3. Jim May 25, 2019 at 7:24 pm #

    Remember that E. Musk is a criminal…or 3 governments in Europe thought so and indicted him and his company, Paypal, for fraud and theft. In the US, he’s revered but around the world Paypal is known for theft of their own customers funds.

    Never trust that idiot. He’s a common thief.

    • Omri Shaffer May 26, 2019 at 1:36 pm #

      Very sharp and true. Elite projection is an important and well defined term, because it is indeed the major historical force behind non-conflict urban destruction. Musk and his embarrassing comments are a sad character of that. It’s his right to try casting his human-hating projections in concrete with his own funds. But it’s just sad to see so many public authorities fall to his feet.

    • Nathanael May 30, 2019 at 10:39 pm #

      Musk was kicked out of Paypal pretty early, remember. He’s not a criminal, regardless of what Paypal is.

      He is, shall we say, *grossly over optimistic about everything he works on*. Insanely so.

  4. Thinkingman May 26, 2019 at 2:12 am #

    I dont think elite projection is a good analysis of his mental process. There might be a bit of an over optimistic illusion of how simple out of the box thinking could ease the situation drastically as he has done with his other ventures. But your perspective hinders your own problem solving skills cause you are basically arguing why it wouldnt work. It also creates friction between new and old ideas. Better perspective imo would be to pick the core idea and admit the current solution is far from optimal. Maybe you have done just that before, have not read all your thoughts.

    • Jim Andrakakis May 26, 2019 at 2:32 am #

      Thinking out of the box is fine. Pouring millions of public money on “solutions” that doesn’t work, isn’t.

    • Samuel H May 26, 2019 at 11:23 am #

      Transit in a city is not an unsolved problem. It is a solved problem, with established solutions that have been shown to work for over a century. Furthermore, transport infrastructure is intended to be built and to last for possibly over a hundred years, it is precisely not the thing where you should use unproven technology with dubious benefits.

      In other words, this is not some field which needs radical new ideas. It is a field which, in the US especially, needs focus on competent cost-effective execution, and iterative improvement of existing ideas.

  5. Joe May 26, 2019 at 5:37 am #

    Well, if the elites get off the road that’s progress right? Especially if they pay for the first few tunnels. Tesla can then build the next tunnel and next tunnel until upper middle class can afford it using it. This all benefits clearing up the roads above doesn’t it?

    • Jacob Manaker May 26, 2019 at 1:35 pm #

      Induced demand makes the effect negligible. That is, the extra space freed up by moving the rich’s cars underground gets taken up by a few other (not-rich) people, and the road stays just as congested.

    • Dave May 29, 2019 at 10:52 am #

      “Tesla can then build the next tunnel and next tunnel until upper middle class can afford it using it.”

      Moving the hundreds of thousands of people that comprise the “upper middle class” in most metropolises would take a lot more of these single-car tunnels, which are estimated to only be able to move a few thousand people at most in a 24-hour period. It’s possible that the sheer number of tunnels required to scale up to just serve the “upper middle class” would cause massive sinkholes in surface streets and/or foundation instability to existing buildings in most densely developed cities.

  6. Arnold Gall May 26, 2019 at 8:19 am #

    How do you move thousands of people per hour.

    safe & relaxed,
    at a constant speed of 18 kmph,
    without emissions,
    without pollution,
    without traffic congestion?

    Hint: stop thinking on ‘streetlevel’


    • Sailor Boy May 30, 2019 at 2:54 am #

      I thought you were going to say bicycles until you ruled out street evel.

    • El_slapper July 1, 2019 at 6:13 am #

      especially relevant in a city surrounded by mountains.

  7. A. Gall May 26, 2019 at 8:20 am #

    Q: What is the easiest money you can earn.

    A: the money that you did’nt spent.

    The bicycle is a curious vehicle.
    It’s passenger is it’s engine.
    ‘John Howard’


  8. Charles Benoit May 26, 2019 at 3:00 pm #

    He was *NOT* paid close to US$2.3 billion last year. That amount *will* (i.e., in the future) only happen if he delivers commensurate gains for every other Tesla shareholder.

  9. Scott Albrecht May 27, 2019 at 7:22 am #

    This isn’t just about Elon Musk. You are right to point out that certain facts (like geometry) are not open to innovation, and knowing the difference between what can change and what can’t is critical to true innovation.

  10. Marc May 28, 2019 at 9:58 am #

    So Springfield may have caught on to his scam, but we’ll see if he tries to hustle Ogdenville and North Haverbrook next.

  11. Sean Gillis May 29, 2019 at 5:37 am #

    Musk just secured a contract with the Los Vegas convention center to build a two tunnel, three stop people mover. Ballpark $50 million dollars for a system under 1 km in length. Seems like a toy instead of a real transportation mode: perhaps this kind of situation will be a niche where his people mover can excel, although they are already looking to scale up to 16 seater vehicles. If he fails here, well it’s a small bet and a niche market. Perhaps he pulls this off by producing something that looks more like a train or bus underground, in which case well the ‘radical’ idea doesn’t look all that radical.

    Best case, smart people at the Boring Company find a whole bunch of efficiencies in design and construction that can be replicated or adapted to help build / design/ operate big city transit. Although one assumes there are already many best practices across Europe, South America and Asia that would do well in North American agencies. Worst case, Musk goes ahead with his current Tesla in a tunnel or something similar and this system barely moves 400 people an hour. Hopefully if he fails it will be a caution to others.


  12. Nathanael May 30, 2019 at 10:38 pm #

    Musk wasn’t paid anything last year.

    He was given promises of pay if he managed to raise the TSLA stock price above $600 within the next ten years. Have you looked at the stock price lately?

    Don’t believe disinformation. This “potential pay in the future”, none of which was vested or collected, was valued at $2.8 billion by totally bogus methods.

    Musk still doesn’t have a clue about mass transportation, but you should avoid reprinting lies.

  13. El_slapper July 1, 2019 at 6:18 am #

    For that induced demand thing, I remember, when I was a kid, my father was using the “viaduc de Genneviliers”, a 2km bridge between the Val D’oise to the north and Paris to the South, over the Seine river, to go to work. This 2*2 lanes was always congested.

    Then they build a second bridge next to it, effectively doubling the capacity of the whole thing(considering the motorway to the north was already 4 lanes, and the south exits are 3 2-lane ways). He was very happy. Not for long. Less than one year later, it was back to previous congestion levels.

    It does not mean that it was wasted money. All those cars and trucks are useful to the economy, the the usefulness won’t ever be “reducing congestion”. Niether in Paris nor in Los Angeles.