Urban Planners for Town Councils

Urban Planners for Town CouncilsInventor and billionaire Elon Musk and public transit consultant Jarrett Walker keep debating over urban transit online; the latter is known for contributing to the project to reform Yekaterinburg’s public transit system. The debate first hit the spotlight when the man behind Tesla and Falcon called Jarrett Walker an idiot; but this is about more than just personal disagreements.

At the heart of the dispute are two long-term urban transit development concepts: Musk believes the future belongs to ‘individualized transport’, whereas Walker and his supporters vote for public transit.

As is clear from their discussion, Jarrett Walker and his fellow urban planners juxtapose the ‘elite’ (i.e. car owners whom Jarrett believes Elon Musk backs up) against ‘everyone else’ (whose interests Jarrett would like to be seen as promoting).

Interestingly, the ideas Walker voiced when consulted on Yekaterinburg public transit reform were quite different. Those were the two city-owned companies, the tramway/trolleybus and the bus operators, and not the passengers themselves, that would benefit from his scheme. The proposed system was designed in such a way as to produce as many new passengers for the town council-controlled public transit system as possible. This would also mean these passengers would have to change buses/trams much more often — and those buses would be terribly overcrowded at that.

In Russia on the whole and Yekaterinburg (for which Walker designed his public transit reform project) in particular, you see a third player in the ‘elite’ vs. ‘everyone else’ game: the town officials, who pursue their own interests in the public transit sector. The proposed reform would result in more money for the city-owned tram and bus operators. This means the reform benefits the town council and not ‘everyone else’. As a matter of fact, it was this very tramway/trolleybus company (Tramvayno-Trolleybusnoye Upravleniye) that ordered and paid for Walker’s project. All this talk of the ‘elite’ can only be seen as a coverup for the reform’s actual goal: benefitting the city-owned businesses.

This makes Musk/Walker controversy look a bit different: even if Elon Musk is wrong about some things, he is at least sincere about what he believes in. Given what he’s suggested for Yekaterinburg, whether Jarrett Walker is sincerely interested in the good of the people is not an easy question to answer.

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