The problem of space: why Elon Musk doesn't understand urban geometry

Elon Musk unveils the new Tesla Model X Crossover SUV in Fremont, California, last September. Image: Getty.

He may be a brilliant visionary in all kinds of ways, but Elon Musk’s “Master Plan, Part Deux” makes grand plans for the abolition of fixed route public transport without thinking clearly about urban space:

“With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses and transition the role of bus driver to that of fleet manager. Traffic congestion would improve due to increased passenger areal density by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways, and matching acceleration and braking to other vehicles, thus avoiding the inertial impedance to smooth traffic flow of traditional heavy buses.

“It would also take people all the way to their destination. Fixed summon buttons at existing bus stops would serve those who don’t have a phone. Design accommodates wheelchairs, strollers and bikes.”

Musk assumes that public transit is an engineering problem, about vehicle design and technology.  In fact, providing cost-effective and liberating transportation in cities requires solving a geometry problem, and he’s not even seeing it.  What’s more, he’s repeating a very common delusion, one I hear all the time in urbanist and technology circles.

Musk’s vision is fine for low-density outer suburbia and rural areas.  But when we get to dense cities, where big transit vehicles are carrying huge ridership, Musk’s vision is a disaster.  That’s because it takes lots of people out of big transit vehicles and puts them into small ones, which increases the total number of vehicles on the road at any time.  The technical measure of this is Vehicle Miles (or KM) Travelled (VMT).

Today, increasing VMT would mean increased emissions and increased road carnage. But let’s say technology has solved those problems, with electric vehicles and automation.  Those are engineering problems.  Inventors can work on those.

There is still, and will always be, the problem of space. Increasing VMT means that you are taking more space to move the same number of people. This may be fine in low-density and rural areas, where there’s lots of space per person.  But a city, by definition, has little space per person, so the efficient use of space is the core problem of urban transportation.

The tyranny of maths

When we are talking about space, we are talking about geometry, not engineering, and technology never changes geometry.  You must solve a problem spatially before you have really solved it.

The reigning fantasy of Musk’s argument is that we must always “take people all the way to their destination”. But to do this we must abolish the need to ever change vehicles – from a train to a bus, from a car to a train, from a bus to a bike – and of course we also abolish walking.  This implies a vision in which buses are shrunk into something like taxis, because a vehicle going directly from your exact origin to your exact destination at your chosen time won’t be useful to many people other than you.

So a bus with 60 people on it today is blown apart into, what, little driverless vans with an average of three each, a 20-fold increase in the number of vehicles?  It doesn’t matter if they’re electric or driverless.  Where will they all fit in the urban street?  And when they take over, what room will be left for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, pocket parks, or indeed anything but a vast river of vehicles?

There are audiences for which Musk’s vision makes mathematical sense sense: people for whom useful high-ridership transit isn’t an option anyway.  There are two big categories of these people:

  • People who live in outer-suburban and rural areas, where space is abundant and high-ridership transit isn’t viable;
  • The top 20 per cent or so of urban residents, who can afford to use relatively expensive servies that would never scale to the entire population of the city.

If you are in one of these categories, your most urgent task is to remember that most people aren’t like you, and that cities are impossible if everyone lives according to your personal tastes.  As Edward Glaser said, “one’s own tastes are rarely a sound basis for public policy”.

That issue, right there, is the great disconnect between tech marketing and genuine urban problem-solving.


Tech marketing is all about appealing to elite personal tastes.  It runs on the assumption that whatever we sell to the wealthy today we can sell to the masses tomorrow.  

But some things stop working when everybody buys them. Cars in dense cities, for example, are not a problem when only the top 20 per cent are using them; it’s mass adoption of cars that makes them ruinous to a dense city and to the liberty of its citizens. Ask anyone in a fast-growing developing world city about that.

Here is the harm that this all this elite chatter about abolishing the bus is doing: it’s introducing fatal confusion into the discussion of urban development.

The density solution

Dense cities that want to live in the real world of space and time, and that do not want to become dystopias that are functional only for the rich, need to use urban space efficiently. There is some simple and well-proven maths about how to do this, which is also the maths of how transit systems achieve high ridership.

These cities need to organize themselves around frequent transit corridors, where big-vehicle frequent transit, bus or rail, can prosper, allowing the city to grow dense without growing vehicle trips.

Someday some of these corridors will be rail or Bus Rapid Transit. But the only way to grow enough corridors quickly, so that you cover much of the city with frequent service that can succeed in ridership terms, is to take frequent fixed-route bus service seriously. If you don’t do that in your land use planning, you’re going to end up building a city where fixed transit is geometrically impossible, and then you’ll have to settle for Musk’s vision. Geometrically, that vision can only mean liberating transportation just for the top 20 per cent – or electrified, automated gridlock for everyone.

Smart cities aren’t just the ones that chase the latest technology fads. They’re the ones that think carefully about the spatial, geometric problem that a dense city is. Because if it doesn’t work geometrically, it doesn’t work.

Jarrett Walker is an international consultant in public transit network design and policy, based in Portland, Oregon. He is also the author of “Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives".

This article was originally written for his blog, and is reposted here with permission.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.