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Transport / Mass transit

Transport utopianism is stupid, and Elon Musk should shut up

One of the things that’s most irritating about politics in 2018 – and goodness me, aren’t there a lot of choices – is the utopianism that’s crept into the transport debate. There is an apparently endless supply of people who wouldn’t be seen dead on public transport, or using any other service labelled with the word “public”, if they can possibly help it, yet who have come to the conclusion that they are the people the staid and dusty world of transport policy has been waiting for. 

And the message they are keen to send is that the old ways of doing things is over: shiny new technologies are going to disrupt the transport sector, just as they disrupted the music industry or retail. Why bother investing in mass-transit, when autonomous vehicles (AV) and ride-hailing apps are about to take over the world? Why waste money on high speed rail, when Elon Musk’s exciting new hyperloop will be along any minute? Silicon Valley types ask these questions, even as they earnestly suggest some kind of fixed route, ride-sharing service based on vehicles larger than the private car, blissfully unaware that they’ve just re-invented the bus. Again.

It’s true that new technologies will have huge, and occasionally unexpected, effects on our transport systems. AV, for example, could reduce the need for parking spaces, freeing up huge amounts of land for other uses, and may eventually make roads safer, too. As sci-fi as it sounds, the hyperloop – pods in vacuum tubes, travelling at up to 760 miles per hour – is, technically, feasible; if it happens, it could radically reduce demand for carbon-spewing short-haul flights.

But these two technologies have something else in common: low capacity. The pods on most of the – still largely theoretical – hyperloop designs can carry only a few dozen people each. And however clever AVs are, they don’t change the rules of geometry. A world in which every journey involves a private car, travelling at a limited speed, means continuing to give over a load of space in our cities to roads. If cars end up taking longer routes to avoid traffic, we might even need more.


There are transport technologies that don’t face these problems – that can carry a lot of people, at decent speeds, while producing relatively little pollution and taking up relatively little space. But they aren’t excitingly sexy and new things like AV or Hyperloop: they’re boring ones, like trains and trams and buses.

New technologies will improve those, too. Smarter and more integrated payment systems will make them easier to use. Big data will help planners spot gaps in the network, that could be usefully or profitably filled. Apps will help users to plan more efficient journeys, and spread them out so they don’t all travel at once.

But the point remains: if you want to move large numbers of people around limited space in the most efficient way possible, you should invest in fixed and predictable high-capacity routes. The solution is the same as it ever was: decently run mass transit networks. There is a reason Silicon Valley keeps re-inventing the bus.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

This article first appeared in the New Statesman’s sister publication Spotlight.
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