In this Sunday reading post, Kent mentioned a recent debate between Jarrett Walker (Disclosure: Jarrett is a friend of mine) and Elon Musk (Disclosure: Elon is not a friend of mine, but is famous for his role inventing PayPal and Tesla). The origins of the debate lie in the following comments Musk made to a journalist:
“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,” he continued. “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.”
When the audience member responded that public transportation seemed to work in Japan, Musk shot back, “What, where they cram people in the subway? That doesn’t sound great.”
In response to these comments, Jarrett penned a CityLab article titled “What Elon Musk Doesn’t Get About Urban Transit”. In his article, Jarrett refutes what he sees as the two main thrusts of Musk’s critique: First, transit doesn’t exactly meet my needs and, second, transit requires sharing space with strangers. The thrust of Jarrett’s argument is that (1) efficient transit will meet the needs of many people well, but not necessarily anyone perfectly and (2) efficient transit requires a high number of people per unit of area (efficient use of resources y’all).
Musk seems to fundamentally misunderstand how cities work. In my view, many people (what Musk calls “bunches of random strangers”) live in cities because they offer a better life than what is available in less dense environments elsewhere. There’s a wealth of studies showing that proximity to people has advantages both in terms of production, e.g. access to more specialised jobs, and consumption, e.g. access to more specialised services, both of which are what economists refer to as “agglomeration economies”. So while *Musk* might not like the presence of strangers, many people do appear to value proximity, either directly or indirectly.
And, somewhat ironically given Musk’s background, technological developments seem to be amplifying the benefits of proximity to random strangers. Anyone who’s used dating apps like Tinder can probably appreciate the benefits of being in a crowd of strangers. I mean you could use Tinder in the Australian Outback, but who knows what will pop up?
Tinder is but one example of the benefits that follow from “sharing space with strangers”. Apart from demonstrating a basic lack of understanding of why people live in cities, Musk’s comments exhibit a basic ignorance of transit’s main (technological) advantage. That is, transit enables large numbers of people to move efficiently in environments where space is constrained and highly-valued. The flip-side of the coin, of course, is that transit may not be efficient in low-density environments. And while Elon is focused on developing innovative technologies for the latter, he seems to be assuming that everyone (1) wants to live in low-density environments and (2) has the necessary financial means to purchase enough space for individualised, high-speed motorised travel (autonomous or otherwise).
To finish the CityLab article, Jarrett introduces the concept of what he calls “elite projection“. The introduction to this post is worth quoting in full:
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.
Reading this post caused me to reflect on whether I had encountered elite projection in my work in Australia and New Zealand. In the Auckland context, I would suggest many Unitary Plan policies are absolutely drenched in elite projection. Notable examples include:
- Minimum parking requirements (MPRs) — which assume that most people have the means to own and operate vehicles. Data from the 2013 census indicates that approximately 30% of households in Auckland that earn under $20,000 or less do not own any vehicles at all. So let’s be clear that MPRs — aside from their other effects — are likely to benefit the rich far more than the poor.
- Minimum balcony requirements (MBRs) — which assume that most people will be better-off in apartments with large balconies. Even though construction cost data indicates that requiring such balconies can add up to 20% to the costs of apartments. Money that many most low-income households would rather spend on other things, like food and education.
In my view, MPRs and MBRs are examples of policies arising from elite projection. They take what is normal to people who are well-off (the need for parking and balconies respectively) and presume those who are less well-off will be better off if they are forced to pay for such things via higher housing prices. Of course, it would be wonderful if everyone had enough money to own cars and live in apartments with balconies. In reality, however, not everyone has enough money for such niceties, and imposing regulations that make housing more expensive is likely to make these people worse off.
Planning is not the only profession where elite projection has run amok. In the transport industry, for example, many people view are desperately grasp for silver bullets in their hunt for the Great White (commuter).
Like park-and-ride. Now don’t get me wrong: I fully support investment in well-located and appropriately-sized park-and-ride. The problem I have is that park-and-ride is not a PT panacea, but instead follows from providing high-quality public transport. Until you have the latter you ain’t gonna need much park-and-ride. Even in cities with extensive facilities, park-and-ride rarely contributes more than, say, 15% of the total public transport patronage (NB: Wellington is the notable exception).
Elite projection is, I think, the underlying cause of some people’s pre-occupation with park-and-ride. That is, many of the people involved in decisions about public transport investments tend to be older, wealthier, and travel primarily by car. When considering how they might incorporate public transport into their day-to-day lives, park-and-ride appeals because it enables them to sustain a car-based lifestyle while accessing PT when they need to travel to the city.
For investment in park-and-ride to be effective, however, park-and-ride needs to be strategically located, appropriately-sized, and well-managed (yes, this may mean pricing). Such ideas are well-documented in the transport planning literature. This paper, for example, analyses data from the Netherlands and finds that park-and-ride diverts people from walking and cycling, and that remote sites tend to outperform peripheral urban locations. In a similar vein, this paper analysed data from Canada on the effect of park-and-ride pricing and found that charges were more likely to divert people to public transport (e.g. using connecting bus services) than to drive their cars for the whole journey.
In my experience, decision-makers in Australia and New Zealand tend to down-play such evidence and instead adopt relatively expansive park-and-ride investment programmes. Based on my reading of the evidence, it’s perhaps good to consider whether we should price park-and-ride before we seek to add more?
Even if you don’t agree with my examples of land use and transport policies that suffer from elite projection, you may still agree with me that elite projection is a problem worth tackling (and if you have better examples, then please note them in the comment thread). Assuming that many of you do agree, then this raises the question of what we can do about it? On this point, I again prefer to defer to Jarrett, who notes:
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 … 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 … 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.
I am guilty of elite projection. That said, I’m going to work hard to try and stop elite projection from causing me to blur the lines between creating a city that works for the royal we versus a city that works for us. Perhaps you’d like to join in this effort? Go well.
(1) As always, this post represents the views of the Author at the time of writing. These views are subject to change as new information comes to light, and does not represent the views of GA nor any current/past employers, colleagues, or clients with whom the Author is associated.
(2) An earlier version of this post contained an image that was offensive to some people. The GA Editors apologise for the offence caused, which was unintentional. For what it’s worth, the Author’s intention was to make fun of himself, in particular the fact that he met and married someone (in Australia) via Tinder. Nonetheless, GA and the Author appreciate this feedback and will seek to consider such issues more carefully in the future.