Two crucial bits of news about Elon Musk:
- He was paid close to US$2.3 billion last year.
- His wildly hyped Boring Company, which has dazzled city governments and investors with visions of an efficient subway where you never have to get out of your car, turns out to be a paved road tunnel.
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?