Multitasking entrepreneur Elon Musk announced on Friday that the underground urban transportation system planned by his Boring Company would adjust to prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists over cars. The pivot came three months after Musk notoriously lambasted a critic of the project’s original, car-centric plan.
The Boring Company, though wildly ambitious, is just a side project for Musk, who is also CEO of Tesla and SpaceX. It proposes to develop technology that will make tunnel-drilling faster and less expensive. When things began getting serious last Fall, the project’s core concept was to reduce urban traffic by transporting cars down those tunnels on electric sleds. The shift to giving pedestrians priority would make the system, which has received a very preliminary permit for work in Washington, D.C., something like a high-tech bus.
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Musk said the Boring Company system would also still move cars, but “only after all personalized mass transit needs are met.” Musk called the shift “a matter of courtesy and fairness. If someone can’t afford a car, they should go first.”
The about-face suggests Musk may have learned more than it seemed from a December blowup with mass-transit advocate Jarrett Walker. Following comments in which Musk said public transit “sucks” because it’s shared with “a bunch of random strangers,” Walker characterized Musk’s attitude as “a luxury (or pathology) that only the rich can afford.”
Walker also reiterated widespread critiques of Musk’s futuristic transportation plans, which many experts have argued would be mathematically impossible to scale up to serve an entire urban population.
Musk, replying to Walker on Twitter, simply wrote: “You’re an idiot”.
Now, by opening up space for pedestrians and cyclists, Musk seems to be responding to both the moral and practical criticisms of the Boring Company’s ambitions. Making the system more pedestrian-focused, after all, has the potential to do much more to reduce traffic than simply moving cars underground. The remaining question is whether the system can also deliver on its promise of “personalization” — balancing the need to move high volumes of people, with a desire to get them very close to their destinations.