By David Z. Morris
December 16, 2017

Tesla CEO Elon Musk went decidedly low-brow in an exchange with transportation experts on Friday, following reports of comments in which Musk called public transport a “pain in the ass” and suggested the subway was a great place to bump into a murderer.

The fracas began when Wired on Thursday published comments made by Musk at an artificial intelligence conference earlier this month. Musk said that “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?”

Musk further said that using public transit meant rubbing shoulders with “like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer. . . that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”

A Boring Company spokesman sought to clarify to Wired that Musk was criticizing current public transit systems, not the concept of public transit as such. Musk’s ambition, which he’s pursuing through projects including The Boring Company, is to replace subways and buses with autonomous, individualized ‘pods’ to take riders precisely where they want to go, on demand.

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Musk described the report as “misleading and misanthropic,” saying his comments were a “brief digression.”

But critics pounced on Musk’s description of shared transit as an unpleasant safety risk, arguing that Musk’s views were elitist, and that his vision of individualized transit is a pipe dream.

Jarrett Walker, a prominent public transit advocate and consultant, entered the fray by describing Musk’s disdain for public transit as “a luxury (or pathology) that only the rich can afford,” and accusing him, in essence, of attempting to impose his phobia of strangers on everyone.

Musk swiftly tweeted a terse reply to Walker: “You’re an idiot.”

The exchange triggered a broader Twitter debate about Musk’s opinions on transit, with much of the discourse coming from city planners and urbanists who have long eyed Musk’s dream of individualized transit with suspicion.

Walker, in his summary of the incident, pointed out that “the company of ‘random strangers’ is what a city is.”

One self-described transit advocate even said he had sold his Tesla shares in response to Musk’s comment.

 

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