2017-12-24 | Leave a comment Last week’s tweetstorm between Elon Musk and Jarrett Walker was another sad chapter in the ongoing polarization between those who elect to own and use private cars and those who do not or cannot. This century-old standoff turns users of transit, drivers of light-duty vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians into frustrated, aggressive or fearful players in a vast zero-sum game of personal mobility — more like negative-sum if you consider how the whole system is arranged to make sure every player is something of a loser. The Musk-Walker discourse was especially disappointing because these are two men who know something about transportation. Both are intelligent and intend (and generally do) good in their work, but neither appeared bothered to understand the other. Instead, they resorted to insults — each calling the other idiot or elitist. Musk’s understanding of automobility leans more toward 2030 and Walker’s more toward 2004. This makes Musk premature in his name-calling and Walker needing to do more thinking about how the next 13 years will reshape an urban transportation very differently from the best-practices he has espoused over the past 13. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu teaches: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.” Both men suffered a Sun Tzu defeat. Musk lost more in the immediate battle, but Walker is poised to lose the war. Musk is right that a majority of travelers prefer to avoid transit. As a simple test, ask 1000 bus riders whether they would prefer to be driving instead then ask 1000 drivers if they would prefer to be on the bus instead. Compare the results. But Musk played this too much like Trump, inferring that some transit users are murders before calling Walker an idiot. He’s not. Rather, Walker is right that transit is important and needed and that not all people can drive for a wide variety of reasons. Musk knows that, making his public behavior toward Walker an acute embarrassment. However, the problem Walker addresses is about to change. When vehicle automation makes travel by robo-taxi and robo-shuttle cheaper than the municipal bus, Musk will be proven a little more right about people’s preference for today’s public transit and Walker a lot less right. Unless choked off by government, the world of robo-vehicles will ramp up quickly, wiping out local bus systems. The extinction will start in communities below the snow belt, then move north to capture all of the taxi and transit bus market and much of the 2nd-family-car market as well. Whether this disruption is completed by 2030 or 2033 matters little. It is coming. Only legislation banning the provision of robotic Transportation-as-a-Service or forcing prices to be higher than transit will halt this. Imagine, in 1905, that government had outlawed motorcars or priced their use aggressively. Imagine the piles of horse manure. Why doesn’t government just step up and retrofit all the bus fleets with autonomous technology? That’s unlikely — where will the money come from? In any case, Big Auto and Big Ride-hailing will run circles around government. The only response is for government to specify-and-regulate. They will no longer be able to stay in the acquire-and-operate mode for municipal buses — which is the mode for which Walker’s fixed-route, fixed-schedule approach excels. Elon Musk should apologize to Jarrett Walker, who like many of us recognizes the current and future value of much public transit. But those who hold Musk’s transit comments in disdain should think very hard about the coming disruption wrought by automation, regardless of whether Musk’s tunnels prove feasible and effective at countering urban congestion.