Elon Musk is wrong about public transport. But transit in the US is still in trouble

The LYNX light rail line in Charlotte, North Carolina. Image: Getty.

Tech tycoon Elon Musk recently declared that public transit “sucks,” and is riddled with serial killers. In the Twitter storms that followed, there was much talk about Musk and his unconventional solutions to the mobility crisis.

We shouldn’t be talking, though, about Elon Musk. Instead, we should be talking about transit: what kind we have, who and what it’s for, and where it’s likely to go in the future.

Like almost everything else in 21st century America, transit is divided by class, and sometimes by race. Buses in the United States are thought to be for poor people, and the statistics largely bear that out. The people who ride buses are different from those who ride light rail and subways, and they are even more different from those who ride commuter trains.

Buses, however, also account for nearly two-thirds of all transit journeys to work outside New York City. And yet, most of the attention – and the funding – goes not to buses, but to their far more glamorous cousins, light rail and trolleys. And a lot of those projects, like Detroit’s much-heralded Q Line, actually have more to do with promoting redevelopment through real estate investment than with moving people around.

Instead of being defensive about people like Elon Musk, who – as others have pointed out – has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about, we should recognise that public transit in the United States is in serious trouble. For all the hype and the billions in investment, it’s still an exotic taste.

Outside New York City, only 3.5 per cent of work trips (and an even smaller percentage of non-work trips) take place on transit. Transit accounts for 10 per cent or more of work trips in only nine of the nation’s top 60 urban areas, and 10 per cent of total trips only in New York.  Despite the fact that transit is heavily subsidised, many of our biggest systems are in poor shape or worse. Deferred maintenance, inadequate capital investment and fiscal woes are taking an increasing toll, as stories from New York, New Jersey, Washington DC and elsewhere over the past year or two have made abundantly clear.


While there is plenty of blame to go around, the most fundamental problem is that, for 60 years or more, we have systematically spread our population around our metro areas – yes, I’m talking about sprawl – in ways that are fundamentally incompatible with efficient, cost-effective mass transit. Many of our older cities have thinned out, while suburbia has spread further afield.

The city of Cleveland, for example, has only 40 per cent of the people it had in 1950, while ever-spreading development has formed a blob spreading 25 or more miles east and south of downtown. 

This triggers what transit people call the ‘last mile problem.’ It’s a serious problem, and possibly insoluble by transit, despite a lot of creative thinking. People live – and their jobs are located – in such a dispersed fashion that, outside of high-density central areas, no plausible network of transit lines can get close enough to them to make transit preferable to simply getting in one’s car and driving off.  And no, the solution is not getting people to walk more; that might work on a beautiful spring day, but not the rest of the time.

This problem is further complicated by two big developments in transportation: ride-hailing systems like Uber and Lyft, and the imminent arrival of autonomous, self-driving vehicles. Whatever else they may or may not do, these changes have already made it easier for more people to use cars, whether theirs or someone else’s, and will make it even easier in the future. After all, if solving the last mile problem through transit involves taking Uber to the bus, and then another Uber from the bus to the workplace, why not just take one Uber to begin with?

Transit is important, but I think we have to take a step back and ask ourselves why it’s important. Public transit systems serve a variety of different policy agendas, including:

  • Enabling financially-constrained people to get to jobs and take other necessary trips;
  • Reducing congestion in dense urban areas and corridors;
  • Promoting redevelopment of disinvested urban cores or transit hubs, and maintaining the competitive edge of urban centers;
  • Reducing vehicular emissions;
  • Enhancing mobility for people whose ability to use individual vehicles is limited, such as teenagers, the elderly and the disabled.

All of these functions are relevant, and important. But they are sometimes in conflict – and even when they’re not, we may not have enough resources to address all of them. If we invest hundreds of millions in light rail systems whose primary role is to foster redevelopment, we will have fewer resources to help people with limited options get to jobs with reasonable efficiency. With the majority of urban residents today working in the suburbs, that’s not an insignificant concern, and in my opinion, should be the highest priority.

We need to start thinking differently about transit. For example, we assume that transit should be a monopoly, run by the MTA in New York, the CTA in Chicago, SEPTA in Philadelphia, and so forth. Yet a monopoly can be a very inefficient way to achieve the many different goals that transit is called upon to serve. 

A few years ago in CityLab, Lisa Margonelli pointed out that “America's 20th largest bus service – hauling 120,000 riders a day – is profitable and also illegal.” She’s talking about the hundreds of what New Yorkers call “dollar vans,” which cater to people and areas inadequately served by public transit.

Most cities have something similar. Most or all are illegal. Why not allow anyone with a properly licensed, insured and inspected van to pick up passengers on street corners and take them where they want to go?

In the end, it’s not about Elon Musk. Indeed, if his words encourage us to think more about what transit is for, and how to achieve those goals – plausibly, not through imaginary tech ‘fixes’ – that would make this entire Twitter spat worthwhile.

Alan Mallach is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a US non-profit organisation which focuses on urban America. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America.

 
 
 
 

Here’s why we’re using a car wash to drill into the world’s highest glacier on Everest

Everest. Image: Getty.

For nearly 100 years, Mount Everest has been a source of fascination for explorers and researchers alike. While the former have been determined to conquer “goddess mother of the world” – as it is known in Tibet – the latter have worked to uncover the secrets that lie beneath its surface.

Our research team is no different. We are the first group trying to develop understanding of the glaciers on the flanks of Everest by drilling deep into their interior.

We are particularly interested in Khumbu Glacier, the highest glacier in the world and one of the largest in the region. Its source is the Western Cwm of Mount Everest, and the glacier flows down the mountain’s southern flanks, from an elevation of around 7,000 metres down to 4,900 metres above sea level at its terminus (the “end”).

Though we know a lot about its surface, at present we know just about nothing about the inside of Khumbu. Nothing is known about the temperature of the ice deeper than around 20 metres beneath the surface, for example, nor about how the ice moves (“deforms”) at depth.

Khumbu is covered with a debris layer (which varies in thickness by up to four metres) that affects how the surface melts, and produces a complex topography hosting large ponds and steep ice cliffs. Satellite observations have helped us to understand the surface of high-elevation debris-covered glaciers like Khumbu, but the difficult terrain makes it very hard to investigate anything below that surface. Yet this is where the processes of glacier movement originate.

Satellite image of Khumbu glacier in September 2013. Image: NASA.

Scientists have done plenty of ice drilling in the past, notably into the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. However this is a very different kind of investigation. The glaciers of the Himalayas and Andes are physically distinctive, and supply water to millions of people. It is important to learn from Greenland and Antarctica, – where we are finding out how melting ice sheets will contribute to rising sea levels, for example – but there we are answering different questions that relate to things such as rapid ice motion and the disintegration of floating ice shelves. With the glaciers we are still working on obtaining fairly basic information which has the capacity to make substantial improvements to model accuracy, and our understanding of how these glaciers are being, and will be, affected by climate change.

Under pressure

So how does one break into a glacier? To drill a hole into rock you break it up mechanically. But because ice has a far lower melting point, it is possible to melt boreholes through it. To do this, we use hot, pressurised water.

Conveniently, there is a pre-existing assembly to supply hot water under pressure – in car washes. We’ve been using these for over two decades now to drill into ice, but our latest collaboration with manufacturer Kärcher – which we are now testing at Khumbu – involves a few minor alterations to enable sufficient hot water to be pressurised for drilling higher (up to 6,000 metres above sea level is envisioned) and possibly deeper than before. Indeed, we are very pleased to reveal that our recent fieldwork at Khumbu has resulted in a borehole being drilled to a depth of about 190 metres below the surface.

Drilling into the glacier. Image: author provided.

Even without installing experiments, just drilling the borehole tells us something about the glacier. For example, if the water jet progresses smoothly to its base then we know the ice is uniform and largely debris-free. If drilling is interrupted, then we have hit an obstacle – likely rocks being transported within the ice. In 2017, we hit a layer like this some 12 times at one particular location and eventually had to give up drilling at that site. Yet this spatially-extensive blockage usefully revealed that the site was carrying a thick layer of debris deep within the ice.

Once the hole has been opened up, we take a video image – using an optical televiewer adapted from oil industry use by Robertson Geologging – of its interior to investigate the glacier’s internal structure. We then install various probes that provide data for several months to years. These include ice temperature, internal deformation, water presence measurements, and ice-bed contact pressure.


All of this information is crucial to determine and model how these kinds of glaciers move and melt. Recent studies have found that the melt rate and water contribution of high-elevation glaciers are currently increasing, because atmospheric warming is even stronger in mountain regions. However, a threshold will be reached where there is too little glacial mass remaining, and the glacial contribution to rivers will decrease rapidly – possibly within the next few decades for a large number of glaciers. This is particularly significant in the Himalayas because meltwater from glaciers such as Khumbu contributes to rivers such as the Brahmaputra and the Ganges, which provide water to billions of people in the foothills of the Himalaya.

Once we have all the temperature and tilt data, we will be able to tell how fast, and the processes by which, the glacier is moving. Then we can feed this information into state-of-the-art computer models of glacier behaviour to predict more accurately how these societally critical glaciers will respond as air temperatures continue to rise.

The ConversationThis is a big and difficult issue to address and it will take time. Even once drilled and imaged, our borehole experiments take several months to settle and run. However, we are confident that these data, when available, will change how the world sees its highest glacier.

Katie Miles, PhD Researcher, Aberystwyth University and Bryn Hubbard, Professor of Glaciology, Aberystwyth University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.