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Dispatches from the stupidest timeline


We’re drowning in stupid, every day, but Jeffrey Goldberg and his crack editorial team at The Atlantic have decided to up the ante. They’ve seen fit to publish the musings of one Peter Wayner on the future of the New York subway system. No summary could possibly do it justice; it has to be read to be believed:

Instead of fixing the old trains, let’s rip out the tracks and fill the tunnels with fleets of autonomous vehicles running on pavement. The result would be radical improvements in throughput while saving money and increasing the ability of the system to survive a fire, flood, or terrorist attack.

These subterranean highways would be dramatically simpler than public roadways for an autonomous artificially intelligent system because the tunnels could be limited to authorized vehicles only. No jaywalkers on cellphones. No babies in runaway carriages. Just a collection of competing fleets, centrally orchestrated and offering different levels of service to different groups at different prices.


Autonomous vehicles, by contrast, can be incredibly lithe, especially if you skip over the car-shaped models and head for the super-lightweight transports called “hoverboards” or “scooters.” These clever devices with computer-driven balancing look a bit like skateboards but carry enough battery power to go a dozen miles or more.

It goes on to offer a series of cost estimates. Readers will probably not be surprised to learn this system would result in massive savings, based on numbers that he doesn’t even bother to pretend he’s not making up. I have way too much respect for our readers to spell out all the ways this plan is soup-to-nuts insane. He acknowledges costs like “cleaning up the walls,” but if he’s bothered to consider the problem of reduced capacity there’s no evidence of it. If you need more on what’s wrong here, that’s what Jarrett Walker is for.

If there’s a general lesson to take away for transit politics (beyond “techno-optimists are generally useless”), it’s that this represents an extreme-to-the-point-of-self-parody version of a more general problem in transit politics, that has a 1% version and a 10-15% version; the problem of elite projection. Jarrett Walker developed the argument in a very good conceptual article last year, and deployed them several months ago in his back-and-forth with Elon Musk. The elite projection problem is made worse, obviously, by new gilded age inequality, further exaggerating their influence and increasing their power. Wealthy, powerful, important people are less likely to use transit than everyone else. Their opinions, views, and preferences get more of a hearing than everyone else, and are often assumed to be universal. (And in the simplest possible terms they are! They want transit-for-them to act more like a luxury good, and who doesn’t want that! The problem is if it does that it doesn’t and can’t scale.) And everyone involved in transit–planners, politicians, etc–wants more people to ride it. So when they go to listen to non-riders, elites tend to get heard, so their objections to transit are given much more consideration than they’re due. But it’s not just that they have undue influence, it’s that their preferences are imagined to be general; they’re projected (by them, and the people who listen to them) on the public at large.

Musk and this Wayner idiot represent the 1% version–like many serious elites, they hate the very idea of idea of interaction with the public, and of transit not being able to cater to their every whim, so they imagine fanciful transit reforms that solve that problem, which people take far more seriously than they deserve, as seen in all the fawning media attention Musk’s hyperloop scam gets, or Wayner’s madness appearing under the imprimatur of The Atlantic. But the 10-15% version exists, too, and probably has a much greater effect on transit resource allocation. In general, catering to the well-off but not elites in transit design leads to things like a focus on very expensive-to-provide direction express commuter service to core employment centers during standard business hours (inefficient because it requires more rolling stock for peak-of-peak service, involves lots of deadheading, etc), at the expense of creating an all-day comprehensive frequent networks. The former benefits the two car family in a large house in a low-density area that will drive for most non-commute trips, the latter benefits people with unusual/variable schedules and use transit as their primary means of getting around. The first group is going to look a lot more familiar to the well-paid professionals who run transit agencies and sit on their boards–generally speaking, they are those people. Perhaps serving those people–and gaining them as pro-transit constituents–is a trade-off worth making, as transit needs powerful political allies and broad political support (especially with the 1%-ers out to destroy it, like Musk and Wayner). But the ways in which the preferences of these groups become common sense remains pernicious, and inefficiencies in transit service can also create political liabilities.

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