Best known for Tesla, the Hyperloop, and wanting to colonize Mars, Elon Musk recently put forth his newest idea for technological advancement: a series of underground tunnels in Los Angeles that would take cars underground and move them along a track like a conveyor belt. There are all kinds of legitimate questions about whether Musk’s ideas will work, but there’s another matter at hand too: would they perpetuate racial and class inequalities that exist as a result of previous urban planning, or would they help alleviate them?
Even though Musk's latest proposal is for Los Angeles, Emily Gorcenski, a data scientist from Charlottesville, says Musk’s ambitions bring up broader points that apply to our region as well. More specifically, Musk reminds Gorcenski of Robert Moses, who planned and designed much of New York’s public infrastructure from the 1930s to 1960s.
Moses was a visionary, but also a deeply racist man who deliberately kept parts of the city inaccessible to the poor and people of color. For example, he wanted to build bridges without tracks for public transit and at lower heights to prevent buses, which lower income people tended to use more frequently, from accessing the Long Island Parkway and taking people to beaches, parks, and more exclusive (and white) parts of town.
Moses was pro-automobile and anti-public transit. When he built bridges, he refused to add rail support, though he could have.— Emily G in Berlin (@EmilyGorcenski) April 28, 2017
Robert Moses weaponized Civil Engineering and Urban Planning to suppress marginalized communities. Engineering is always political.— Emily G in Berlin (@EmilyGorcenski) April 28, 2017
The result is that to this day, parts of New York City are divided by class and race. One example is the Cross Bronx, an expressway that cut through the Bronx, which at the time the road was built was a historical Jewish neighborhood. The expressway cut off more than 5,000 families from the same opportunities as their neighbors.
Unlike Moses, Musk’s ideas seem to spring out of a genuine desire to innovate and improve other people’s lives. For example, he has suggested that Tesla’s batteries could help areas around the world without electricity infrastructure power their homes.
At the same time, most of Musk’s proposals are only for the elite: only relatively well off people can buy Teslas, and nobody without very deep pockets is going to outer space. Musk has really exciting ideas, but I personally think he sometimes comes off as wanting to use the world as his laboratory while others have to deal with the planning and the side effects.
Elon Musk doesn't strike me as an innovator when he talks about building tunnels and subways. He strikes me as Robert Moses.— Emily G in Berlin (@EmilyGorcenski) April 28, 2017
Who are these tunnels going to serve? The Latino communities in LA? Or are we just running them straight to the rich neighborhoods?— Emily G in Berlin (@EmilyGorcenski) April 28, 2017
Robert Moses permanently shaped the cultural landscape of New York City. It is what it is because of him. But it is what is because of him.— Emily G in Berlin (@EmilyGorcenski) April 28, 2017
What will Elon Musk do? What centuries-long impacts on our cities will he have, and who will profit from them? Who will pay?— Emily G in Berlin (@EmilyGorcenski) April 28, 2017
These are all good things to think about. As the Washington region tries to improve and expand, residents and planners alike should consider how technological changes, from an expanded DC Streetcar to self-driving vehicles, may be a benefit or detriment to communities.
Who will take advantage of these new technologies? How will leaders ensure equity? Can the less fortunate have the same opportunities as their neighbors?