New York Subway

Tech’s Transit Solutions Ignore a Key Element … People

Writer’s Note: After I published this article (beginning below the line rule), news came out about Chicago tapping Musk’s Boring Company to build the new express transit system from downtown Chicago to O’Hare airport. It would be at no cost to the city taxpayers (yet), but at a quick glance at various articles, a few things stick out to me.

“It is unclear exactly what the Boring Co. high-speed airport link would involve, but last year Musk tweeted about his ideas for Chicago. ‘Electric pods for sure,’ he wrote. ‘Rails maybe, maybe not.'”

Even if taxpayers don’t pay a dime for the project, why would you let such a massive system be built under your city if you don’t know every single detail of the system?

“The Chicago system is expected to be able to handle nearly 2,000 passengers per direction per hour, with cars leaving every 30 seconds to two minutes, city officials said. How much a ride will cost is subject to final negotiations, but Boring has stated a goal of charging between $20 and $25 — or half the cost of a typical ride-share or cab ride to O’Hare, a source familiar with the talks said.”

In theory this is feasible. But is it practical? It’s tough to say. Will people try to pile into one vehicle beyond capacity? What about people who are simply slow movers? Will the expectation be that everyone will forgo the Blue Line to O’Hare and take the new express system? If so, that would have severe negative consequences for many of the daily employees at O’Hare who commute via the Blue Line. They can’t afford $40-$50 rides a day? Will there be monthly passes? Will there be subsidized fares? Even if subsidized fares were allowed, they’d still be substantially higher than the sub-$3 fare for the Blue Line.

Quote from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: “Given [Musk’s] track record, we are taking his reputation and saying, ‘This is a guy in two other transportation modes who has not failed.’ That’s what we’re doing.”

Once Musk’s name was thrown in the bidder pool for the project, it was a done deal. Musk has that futuristic aura that everyone wants to bring to their city.  He’s established such a brand for himself that local governments are ironically jumping hand over fist to work with a libertarian inventor. But … past performance is not indicative of future results, Mr. Mayor. As a former investment banker, you should know that.

I’m all for innovation, and Musk has proven himself to be no Lyle Lanley. I just get annoyed when so much attention is devoted to half-baked transit plans.  Anyone familiar with this classic Simpsons episode would get what I’m talking about.


With the ongoing surge in global population, the infrastructure systems and vehicles that move humans from place to place are becoming more strained. While metropolitan regions globally improve (or attempt to improve) their rail and bus transit networks, in the U.S., there has been discussion of developing entirely new systems, with a Silicon Valley bent.

Elon Musk’s vision for a personal rapid transit system (PRT) in Los Angeles has been turning heads. Not because how earth-shattering it is, but more likely because Musk’s name is attached to it. With SpaceX and Tesla, Musk has gained an enormous amount of fame and fans (and critics), and all deservedly so. But his PRT hyperloop, aka Loop, falls short of anything that would be effective in a large metropolis like LA, as criticized in several websites and publications, including this Los Angeles Times op-ed, with which I entirely agree.

So I was a little disappointed when another tech solution to transit, this time on the East Coast, was recently pitched in The Atlantic. For the tl;dr folk, the idea in this article was that New York’s subway is beyond repair and too expensive to fix. So the city should tear up all of its subway tracks and “fill the tunnels with fleets of autonomous vehicles running on pavement.”

I have a number of issues with this article, some not even related to the article content itself,* but I will focus on the things that stood out to me.

The Human Problem

This Atlantic article fails to consider how people actually behave in real life, and even more so in transportation settings.

People could use autonomous vehicles, including “super-lightweight transports called ‘hoverboards’ or ‘scooters.'”

This statement assumes that people would be comfortable riding on hoverboards or scooters, but there’s no guarantee of that, no matter how automated they are. What about people in wheelchairs, or people who are on crutches, or people for whom it is painful to stand, elderly people, or people with luggage, grocery carts, or strollers? The article makes a vague reference to automated cars being used in the tunnels, but its main focus is on able-bodied riders, not all transit users.

“The stations [could be] outfitted with little entrance and exit ramps that carry cabs which carry the riders up to where the turnstiles are now. This way, the traffic would never stop flowing” and “The autonomous vehicles would take passengers … without stopping once.”

This quote conveys the idea that these entrance and exit ramps are constantly moving like chair lifts, where people can glide off and be on with their day. Like with the hoverboard idea, it ignores the disabled, injured, elderly, and people with additional baggage/babies. Humans still have to disembark on and off these vehicles. Sometimes humans are slow. Sometimes they have a lot of stuff to gather. Sometimes they fall asleep. Sometimes they are completely oblivious to were they are. And sometimes they just disobey the rules. This also will back things up at the exits, as well as the entrances.

In addition, what about when hundreds of thousands of people converge on Midtown at once on a Tuesday morning or leave Midtown in the evening? The vehicles will have to stop as the tunnels get backed up with simply more people. Areas around the stations will be incredibly crowded, as what is already crowded with humans during these times of day will get even more crowded with the physical presence of hoverboards. With individualized vehicles, despite the supposed increased frequency, there is a finite number of vehicles that can fit in the space and meet demand. Congestion will still happen in the tunnels; people will still crowd in the stations.

The statement also assumes that there’s enough inventory of said vehicles at your departure station. But the author seems to have a solution to all of this…

“Pricing could be flexible, adjusting to congestion and smoothing demand with a reservation system … People would pay to reserve a slice of the pavement at a particular time, and the tunnels would be maintained by these fees. The prices would move up and down, adapting to demand.” 

The premise of demand-based pricing is questionable, especially when there’s a limited number of available vehicles, which no doubt will happen. People often take transit based on the cost-effective ability to travel a certain distance. Taking the subway is far cheaper than driving to, and parking in, Manhattan. Also, as anyone who has attempted to take an individual Uber or Lyft during rush hour knows, surge pricing jacks up the cost. The exact same thing would happen with this new transit system, making it cost-ineffective for those who rely on transit for its low price.

The reservation system is a whole other beast. It defeats the purpose of transit because, in normal subway operating conditions, people can simply go to a station and board a train. With a reservation system, it forces people to compete for available vehicles at a given station, either digitally or physically. What is the leadtime on reservations? Could people reserve far in advance? What about people who reserve but show up late or don’t show up at all; that will just anger individuals waiting to be able to reserve a vehicle at a given station and possibly exchange words, or worse, with a reserver who is late. And they will be waiting for a vehicle to become available at a station because what is the alternative? Walk X-amount of blocks to the next station? Pay up for a cab/ride-share on a crowded street? Find a bike-share station on the street? (If the underground hoverboards are all taken, you can bet that all the shared bikes in that area will be, too).  What if people don’t have access to reserve a system? That is not a problem with current rail transit.

“Renting out tunnels by the minute would also allow for new uses [such as packages, food, or other freight during off-peak hours.”

How is this any different from simply having a busy road underground? What kind of vehicles would be used for freight? Will people on hoverboards be comfortable riding behind a freight shipment? I could also see businesses pulling their weight and start a bidding war to have access to the tunnels during peak hours, and then what do you have? A congested tunnel at rush hour below a congested street at rush hour.

“The biggest advantage [is] the fact that New York’s underground would become safer, making it possible for people to walk to safety in case of a fire, flood, or terrorist attack.” 

No, it won’t. If someone says “fire,” people will run, many likely pushing others aside as they try to escape. This would be no different from how it is today. You’re not in an open space; you’re still confined to a tunnel. Fires, floods, and terrorism are still threats.

Problematic Perceptions of Transit

What about cars?

The author lays out a confounding comment that is repeated over an over by non-transit riders who want to get rid of transit systems as we know them:

“Lets (sic) us escape the 19th century, when cities needed tons of iron just to move a few people at a steady speed … We don’t need to stick with our old tech…”

You can say the exact same thing about CARS, another 19th century technology that, when invented, required tons of iron to produce vehicles just to move a few people at a steady speed. In addition, other than Tesla and a few others, all cars at least partially run on oil-based fuel, just as they did back in 1900. But no one in the tech world is calling for cars to be eliminated. Even the airplane is over 100 years old! Are we calling that “old tech”? Depending on the situation, cars and planes are highly useful forms of transportation, as is rapid transit whether its bus or rail.

If we’re going to talk about eliminating modes of mobility, how about we fix the subway and toss around the idea of replacing cars with hoverboards. I’m not saying we do that, but let’s just consider that. The article talks about all of the energy savings with the PRT vehicles, which is true. But cars will still be using tons of energy and space above ground, causing gridlock and slowing commuters. If we’re going to rethink things for the 21st century, you have to think of all forms of transit, not just some plan to eliminate a system that (despite its flaws) currently serves over 5 million people PER DAY. PRT can certainly help improve mobility in urban areas, but it’s not a feasible replacement for such high-volume systems.

Indeed the New York subway needs improvement, but this Atlantic article isn’t about antiquated technology at all. This is about not wanting to invest money in a transit system, while also serving a certain class of people with the new technology and failing to see how transit serves the entire populace of an enormous metropolitan region.

The U.S. mindset

In addition, smaller PRT vehicles don’t alleviate the psychologial reasons of why certain people don’t ride transit: They perceive transit to be either a) dirty or b) full of criminals. Even if you have a pod-like vehicle of 10 people (Musk’s vision) or your own personal device (Atlantic), transit can still be perceived as dirty or as a housing for criminals because you’re essentially sharing or renting something you don’t own with other people you don’t know. Many people (those who currently ride public transit) would look past this. But many won’t. No amount of fancy upholstery (as The Atlantic article touts) would fix this. Rather than offering a solution, these new tech solutions only offer a flashy repacking of a problem that affects all metro areas: How to move mass numbers of people.

I have yet to see ideas like this popping up in Europe and developed countries of Asia, probably because they’ve invested billions in their existing public transit systems to the point that they are world-class. Maybe I need to look harder. But it seems that the U.S. headlines are all about how public transit sucks and we need a new form of transportation. Unfortunately, with these PRT ideas for enormous metro areas, we’re just getting a new version of a subway, inspired by and catering to those of an affluent class.

I’m echoing sentiments from many other transit enthusiasts out there regarding this article, but let’s stop trying to recreate the wheel and “disrupting” transit. Disruption is good in tons of cases. But it’s only good when the user experience improves. These new plans, while glitzy, will only enhance the mobility experience for a slim number able folks who previously didn’t like the subway. Worse, it will marginalize a broad number of people (elderly and poor) who rely on transit but are either not tech-savvy enough or lack the tech-based means to keep up with the reservation system, no matter how technologically advanced society is in 100 years. 

Rapid transit isn’t for everyone, and I get that. But everyone should have the same privilege and same ability to ride public transit, hence the term “public.” These proposals of tech solutions don’t aim to supplement existing transit to attract another group of riders. They seek to replace it altogether for the benefit of that other group. Unfortunately, the rest get left behind.

*As an Atlantic subscriber, I’m curious about the decision to publish this piece, especially because parent company, The Atlantic Monthly Group, is also the publisher of well-known urbanist website CityLab, which would not publish an article like this.

Photo by Eddi Aguirre on Unsplash

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