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Elon Musk faces backlash for calling public transport "a pain in the ass"

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has faced criticism from experts after saying that public transport is inaccessible for many and used by serial killers.

Musk, who is the founder and CEO of companies Tesla and SpaceX, was described as elitist by transit agency consultant Jarrett Walker, after comments he made during a conference in Long Beach, California, last month.

"I think public transport is painful," Musk said, reported by Wired. "It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn't leave where you want it to leave, doesn't start where you want it to start, doesn't end where you want it to end? And it doesn't go all the time."

"It's a pain in the ass," he continued. "That's why everyone doesn't like it. And there's like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that's why people like individualised transport, that goes where you want, when you want."

Musk is currently involved in several mass transport projects. He is behind the Hyperloop high-speed transit concept, which has been proposed to dramatically shorten travel times between cities around the world, while his Boring Company is aiming to dig a network of transport tunnels below Los Angeles to ease congestion.

Walker however questioned Musk's suitability to work in this sector, saying his opinions about sharing transport with strangers are "a luxury (or pathology) that only the rich can afford".

"Letting him design cities is the essence of elite projection," Walker said on Twitter, to which Musk replied: "You're an idiot."

Other urban planning experts also got involved in the Twitter debate. Consultant Katelyn McDougall praised Musk and Tesla's leaps forward with electric vehicles (EVs) – which include several car and truck models, and plans to soon implement driverless technology – but criticised his insistence on the need for private vehicle ownership.

"What @elonmusk has done to advance EV technology is a revolution," she said. "What would be #revolutionary would be if he did that AND told people that we need to drive less and own fewer cars."

Brent Toderian, another urban planning consultant, created the hashtag #GreatThingsThatHappenedOnTransit to accumulate positive stories from public transport users around the world.

However, some agreed with portions of Musk's comments. Simon J Berrebi wrote an article for CityLab advocating that Musk has a point about public transport being inaccessible to many city dwellers who don't live near frequented stops.

Berrebi also noted that car-sharing services like Uber and Lyft – which pick passengers up from their front doors – are much more convenient, and that public transport has a way to go to keep up.

Also writing for CityLab, Walker cautioned that looking at urban transportation from an individual perspective doesn't work, and that leaving decisions to those with a personal agenda is not beneficial.

"Many poor transit investments have arisen from a too-small group of fortunate people assuming that everyone shares their tastes and priorities," he said. "If you are going to disrupt urban transit, you first need to understand how, and why, it works."