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Books on Cities: Jarrett Walker, Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives

In 2017, Elon Musk called consulting public-transit planner Jarrett Walker an idiot. This happened on the the social-media platform formerly known as Twitter, before Musk himself took its helm. It began with a criticism of public transit Musk lodged while promoting the notional Hyperloop: “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. 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.” Walker tweeted that Musk’s “hatred of sharing space with strangers is a luxury (or pathology) that only the rich can afford. Letting him design cities is the essence of elite projection,” which in turn drew Musk’s blunt riposte.

This was a dispiriting exchange, not least for what it underscored about the conduct of today’s elites. (No matter how deep I get into the twenty-first century, I’ll never let go of my expectation that the wealthiest members of society should also be the most refined.) But like Donald Trump, Musk’s impulsive baseness and aura of deep eccentricity belies his ability to express the psyche of the American everyman. Real or perceived, the inconvenience and danger of public transit is — to use Musk’s odd phrasing — why everyone doesn’t like it. Even if that American everyman goes to certain cities in Europe or Asia and sees, let alone rides, bus and urban rail systems that are cleaner, safer, and more efficient than he’d ever thought possible, he’ll still believe that they couldn’t possibly work back home. And for all I know, he may be right.

Read the whole thing at Substack.