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No Contest

Anything Elon Musk Can Do a Bus Can Do Better

Tesla’s layoffs have thrown a wrench in the green car narrative. Let’s fund public transit instead.

Elon Musks wears a tuxedo and shrugs.
Craig T Fruchtman/Getty Images
Elon Musk arrives at the 10th Annual Breakthrough Prize Ceremony at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles on April 13.

Tesla will reportedly lay off more than 10 percent of its global staff, according to the electric vehicle–centric news site Electrek. “There is nothing I hate more, but it must be done,” CEO Elon Musk wrote in an email to employees. “This will enable us to be lean, innovative and hungry for the next growth phase cycle.” Two top executives are leaving the company, as well, Bloomberg reported on Monday. One analyst told Yahoo News that the layoffs were an “ominous sign” of the cooling electric vehicle market.

Whether on electrification or autonomous vehicles, Tesla has long been hailed as a company uniquely capable of revolutionizing transportation, with Elon Musk portrayed as the big brain in charge. A series of high-profile blunders, though—like Cybertrucks with stick accelerators and a wrongful death settlement—have cast doubt on Tesla’s capacity to speed the world toward an electrified future. Policymakers might want to start asking themselves: When it comes to creating a transportation system fit for our climate-changed twenty-first century, what can Elon Musk do that the humble city bus cannot?

This is not, admittedly, the most intuitive comparison: Elon Musk is the world’s richest man and a human being. The city bus—those humble workhorses that zip up and down municipal bus lanes across the globe—is a wide-ranging genre of transportation, including many different types of vehicles situated in transit networks of varying size and effectiveness.

Let’s start with some basics, though. Public buses are an unbeatable value. Here in New York City, $2.90 will get you between and within boroughs, usually just a few blocks from your door. A pilot program initiated last fall included one fare-free route in each borough, in the hopes of eventually making buses free throughout. Boston made a number of bus lines fare-free this year, as well. Olympia and many other Washington municipalities have embraced free buses throughout their entire transit system, following the example set in 2019 by Kansas City, Missouri, and Raleigh, North Carolina. Luxembourg offers free public transit nationwide, and several other countries offer free buses, trams, and trains to people under 18, students, and senior citizens.

The cheapest Tesla, by contrast, costs nearly $40,000, which isn’t counting the cost of insurance, financing, and all the other headaches involved in purchasing and owning a car. Elon Musk has allegedly scrapped plans to make what would have been Tesla’s most affordable offering yet, a smaller car slated to be priced at around $25,000. That announcement had already been delayed for several years, reportedly because Musk demanded that his engineers produce a vehicle without pedals or a steering wheel. He did eventually relent, but seems much more interested in championing error-prone Cybertrucks and self-driving “robotaxis,” both of which have questionable safety records.

What about jobs? In the United States alone, public transit systems employ more than 430,000 people, largely in public-sector unions with good salaries, job security, and pensions. As of last year, Tesla employed more than 140,000 people worldwide, none of whom (famously) are unionized.

Finally, public buses offer something to the challenge of decarbonizing transportation that Elon Musk never can: scale. If the goal of decarbonized transit is to get as many people moving using as little carbon as possible, then it’s wildly more efficient to invest more public resources into electrifying and expanding mass transit options than in helping a billionaire sell more luxury items. Unfortunately, public incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act for cleaner transportation—America’s largest-emitting sector—are inordinately weighted toward consumer and manufacturer-side incentives for E.V.s. Tesla’s recent troubles should poke a hole in the idea that Elon Musk is going to revolutionize, much less decarbonize, the ways we move. Anything he can do on that front, a robust, well-funded mass transit network can do better. Buses also don’t post white supremacist conspiracy theories on social media platforms they’ve purchased and run into the ground.