Design will not save us

(The title of this post is the mantra of one of my personal favorite urbanists, @surlyurbanist. Give his Twitter and blog a look.)

Several weeks ago, Elon Musk released a concept video for his new project, The Boring Company. It was met with predictable fanfare and fawning, and the Twitterverse lit up with comments about how futuristic it is. Musk and his proponents seem to be operating on the assumption that resources for transit are constrained indefinitely, and there is no point in trying to implement solutions which are proven to work for moving large numbers of people around. Transit advocates should be worried about this even if his ideas seem innovative. Projects like The Boring Company keep private cars firmly centered as the dominant transportation mode, which cities like LA are actively trying to avoid. Additionally, we have seen this movie before—Musk’s idea is really just a sped-up rehash of personal rapid transit (PRT).

Not much can be said about PRT in practice, since the largest operating system has five stations and the daily ridership of an average Muni bus line. But perhaps that’s all we needed to know, because we shouldn’t expect PRT systems to support heavy ridership! Luca Guala of MLab shares his personal experience designing PRT systems and running into this problem here. The use of small, “personal” vehicles to transport people in high-demand cities like SF or LA is dead on arrival, and Musk’s video gives only a tiny nod to carpooling with a small glass shuttle-looking vehicle. No explanation is given for how non-drivers would use it or how the shuttles decide where to go. In addition, point-to-point transit does not dovetail nicely with good land use planning. Building this sort of infrastructure will guarantee the death of dense, walkable commercial and mixed-use districts. Fixed-route transit prioritizes them, which is a point I’ve been trying to make going back to my very first post.


We should also consider the potential costs of making large infrastructure investments in new and unproven technology independently of any other transportation systems, especially in the hopes of exporting the technology to get a bigger user base and drive down the cost of production. This is the same decision BART made decades ago and the Bay Area has been paying for it ever since.

A blind belief that new design can get around any set of constraints is not healthy for long-term urban planning, as we’ll be jumping from one fad to the next. Several months ago, we were discussing China’s elevated bus as one potential solution to expanding roadway capacity. The elevated bus has many of the same problems as Musk’s project, in that it requires investment in one-of-a-kind, unproven infrastructure, which is almost certainly going to be very expensive. It also trades in the large fixed cost of building, say, a busway or train viaduct over the median of a highway for a large variable cost of building highly specialized vehicles every time the system needs to expand capacity. In the long run, this will cost more money and will be harder to maintain.

I should reiterate that we already know how to move around huge numbers of people, and the world’s densest and most successful cities are already demonstrating this every day. There are no novel problems in urban transit to design around. Rather, the issue is aversion to large capital expenditures. This isn’t exactly unjustified, since long-term investment is subject to the volatility of the local and national economy, government budgets, and shifts in constituents’ priorities. A big investment which doesn’t go to completion doesn’t help anybody at all, and this often means we are consigned to delays and cost overruns. The Second Avenue Subway was held up for a long time because New York City’s financial woes would put the brakes on it whenever work started, and suburbanization meant the New York metro area saw it as less important than building more highways.

We shouldn’t let that dictate how we build infrastructure, though, and many other countries show us this model is still perfectly viable. These countries have more political will to expand transit infrastructure and are willing to spend a lot more money. This means that organizing and calling your representatives is ever more important—it’s the only way we’re going to create a political climate which is conducive to sustained, meaningful investment in transit, and guarantee that SF (or whichever metro area you live in) is prepared for the future.


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