Elon Musk’s “transit” system has a problem with Robert Moses

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Musk’s promise is simple and, at its core, hardly revolutionary: to reduce above-ground traffic jams by creating roads in underground tunnels. The project will be dubbed “The Las Olas Loop”, a reference to a 2.5 mile long local road that connects to the beach. Greater Fort Lauderdale has some of the worst traffic jam in Florida.

But the initial plans have a parallel with a surprising source: Robert Moses, the controversial mid-century “master builder” in New York City. And critics say it could potentially anchor inefficiency and structures of inequality in physical infrastructure, even if Musk doesn’t intend that to happen.

Almost a century ago, Moses also connected a city to a beach. Long Island’s Southern State Parkway was extended from New York to Jones Beach in 1929 with the opening of the Wantagh Causeway, making the beach much more accessible.

Moses, who built 416 miles of boardwalks in New York City – including a road from Queens to Jones Beach – designed them all to exclude buses. The viaducts there designed were intentionally built to be too low for buses to pass, as author Robert Caro pointed out in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses, “The Power Broker.”

Owning a private car was the hot trend of the time of Moses, and like many Americans, he believed in the supremacy of the car. He looked down on other modes of transportation like buses and trains, even though they used space more efficiently. And after making sure buses couldn’t get to Jones Beach via the Southern State Parkway, Moses vetoed the Long Island Rail Road plan to build up to the beach, Caro wrote.

Moses’ approach to planning has been criticized as being both racist and classist. Most families in New York City did not have a car when Moses was building. Those who did tended to be white and relatively wealthy, so building low-clearance viaducts disproportionately impacted low-income bus drivers, many of whom were people of color.

Moses is also considered to have anchored car-centric transportation in New York City, fostering the supremacy of inefficient individual vehicles. (The views of the leaders changed after Moses lost power. The bus service operates today from a Long Island Railroad station to Jones Beach.)
Robert Moses stands in front of the map of Long Island, New York, in 1954.

There is a clear parallel between Musk’s and Moses’ approaches to the modes of transportation our public infrastructure should support.

In Fort Lauderdale, the structure of the Loop system will also exclude buses.

Tickets will cost $ 5-8, more expensive than traditional public transport, which may exclude passengers, as public transport customers are more likely to be low income, and people of color. City buses will not be able to enter Musk’s tunnels, according to Chris Walton, director of Broward County Transportation, which operates buses from Fort Lauderdale, although Walton has said he supports Musk’s project given its potential. remove cars from surface streets.
According to the Boring Company website, the tunnels dug by the Musk company for public transport are 12 feet in diameter. Greyhound, the largest intercity bus company in the United States, told CNN Business its buses need at least 14 feet in diameter to fit in a tunnel.

The Boring Company said building smaller tunnels is more affordable. Some tunneling projects have cost as much as $ 1 billion per mile in recent years. (The Boring Company did not respond to requests for comment.)

“Individualized public transport”

Musk tries to reinvent public transportation and wins supporters like Walton. The mayor of Fort Lauderdale called Loop an innovative solution to congestion. The Boring Company and Fort Lauderdale have yet to make a deal, so financial terms are unclear. The Boring Company already has a private project in Las Vegas, which transports guests to the Convention Center for free. There are plans to expand to other Las Vegas destinations.

A Tesla car drives through West Station near the West Lobby Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center during a media preview of the Las Vegas Convention Center Loop earlier this year.

The Boring Company presents Loop as different from standard public transport, in that passengers can travel with people they know or choose to travel alone.

“Individualized transit is the future,” Musk said.

There is only one thing. As Beth Osborne, director of the political organization Transportation for America, sees it, we have already individualized transit.

“This is the car,” Osborne said.

Even the Boring Company says in its sales pitch that Loop “looks more like an underground highway than a subway system.”

With Loop, you go straight to your destination, rather than stopping at previous stops, like a typical metro. It is an express public transport system, as the Boring Company puts it. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

But what looks good on paper isn’t always a victory in the real world.

The University of West Virginia introduced its Personal Rapid Transit system in the 1970s. Passengers could board one of its eight-seater vehicles and request a direct ride to any of the five stops. The system travels on dedicated lanes and resembles low-speed shuttles between airport terminals.

About 15,000 people still ride the West Virginia system every day during the school year. But the “personal” aspect of the transport system turned out to be flawed. The university realized that it could transport many more students during rush hour if the system operated like a traditional metro and stopped at every station, rather than offering direct trips.

According to Ted Svehlik, associate vice president of the university that oversees the system, adding more vehicles to the lanes to try and accommodate direct trips for everyone at rush hour would lead to traffic jams and make no sense.

The futuristic system at the University of West Virginia reverted to the old truths of public transportation and was more successful. When you build for one person in a car, you virtually guarantee congestion.

Osborne told CNN Business that Musk’s loop system would follow in Moses’ footsteps and institutionalize inefficiency and inequity. Infrastructure errors have to be considered for generations, she said.

“They’re still struggling with this,” Osborne said of Moses’ low overpasses. “We’re building things without thinking. We haven’t got any results on congestion and rather than pivot, we’re going to do it underground as well.”


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