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.

 
 
 
 

What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.


It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

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