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Is Elon Musk really going to save LA from traffic?




Elon Musk, Chairman, CEO and Product Architect of Tesla Motors, addresses a press conference to declare that the Tesla Motors releases v7.0 System in China on a limited basis for its Model S, which will enable self-driving features such as Autosteer for a select group of beta testers on October 23, 2015 in Beijing, China.
Elon Musk, Chairman, CEO and Product Architect of Tesla Motors, addresses a press conference to declare that the Tesla Motors releases v7.0 System in China on a limited basis for its Model S, which will enable self-driving features such as Autosteer for a select group of beta testers on October 23, 2015 in Beijing, China.
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

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Elon Musk believes his ambitious projects will pave the way for the future of transportation. Not only is he behind Tesla's electric cars, but he's developing a hyperloop system and an underground tunnel network for cars. In many of these cases, he uses Southern California as his sandbox.

But at a Long Beach conference last week, he said, "I think public transport is painful. It sucks."

And that statement got transit experts wondering whether Musk's idealized future is for the masses or the privileged few.

"[These are] maybe just services for the people who use his cars to get around faster around the city, and leaves the rest of the people who don't have his cars in the dust," says Alissa Walker, urbanism editor for Curbed LA.

Walker notes that most of Musk's ideas come from the vantage point of helping an individual driver, not the masses. That doesn't address congestion – just the potential annoyance for a single person.

"You really just can't continue digging or building your way out of this mess," Walker says. "You have to eventually get people onto public transit and out of their cars."

Transportation experts note the phenomenon of "induced demand," where making more lanes on a freeway, for example, does not ease congestion. It just means more people will drive to fill in those gaps, making traffic as bad as it was before.

However, visionaries like Musk do have a role in the future of transportation. 

"Tech companies are doing some great things," Walker says, "but the problem – and the real thing that's going to catch us if we don't work on it first – is building out our infrastructure."