The People Mover

First published as part of the Digestable newsletter

Content Warning: This piece focuses exclusively on wealthy eccentric white men.

Last week, Elon Musk’s company The Boring Company unveiled their most recent project, the Las Vegas Convention Center Loop. This grandchild of the fantastical hyperloop, the most stripped down and boring version of the concept anyone could have ever predicted, has been self-effacingly referred to by the company itself as “Teslas in Tunnels.”

Here’s how it works: You and up to 3 of your friends hop into a sedan and are driven by a flesh-and-blood driver through a claustrophobic tunnel decked out with rainbow tiktok lights straight from your Gen-Z cousin’s bedroom. There are no futuristic autonomous pod vehicles, the cars are normal Teslas that hold far less than the promised 16 passengers, and they aren’t even pulled on the weird skates Musk talked about. The teeny tunnels also lack emergency exits and fire sprinklers, though they are comfortingly made of “fire-resistant” concrete. The only promise Musk actually came through with is that there are no pesky intermediate stops as you would experience on a boring old train. Instead you can go directly to whichever of the three (3!) stations your heart desires along the 1.7 mile loop. Bloomberg called the project a “Tesla amusement park ride,” which is more accurate than it appears. In fact, Elon Musk’s eccentric futurist identity and many of his ideas come directly from another influential rich white dude’s brain, Walt Disney.

The Boring Company calls the Convention Center Loop and its proposed expansion a “People Mover,” a name that will sound familiar to anyone who has visited Walt Disney World in Orlando. The Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover attraction, which debuted in the Tomorrowland section of Disney’s California park in 1967 and in Orlando in 1975, was billed as the “public transportation of tomorrow” and features small autonomous trains running a continuous loop around the park. Riders board the vehicles from a moving walkway that matches the speed of the trains as they pass through the station and then cruise a circuit of Tomorrowland, kind of like what Musk told everyone his project would be. As part of the Orlando attraction, riders pass by a diorama depicting Walt Disney’s original planned home for the People Mover, Progress City, the center of Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow which would eventually become Orlando’s EPCOT amusement park.

The original idea for EPCOT has a complicated history and it completely absorbed Walt Disney near the end of his life. It was a mashup of a company town, a streetcar suburb, and an amusement park and if you want a wider overview of the project, I recommend Kevin Perjurer’s Defunctland digest on it. For our purposes we’ll focus on how Walt envisioned transportation within his City of the Future. Unlike a lot of the eccentric visionary dudes of the 50s and 60s like Robert Moses and Frank Lloyd Wright, Walt Disney hated automobiles and tried to design them out of his city. Instead of vehicular arteries, EPCOT’s garden-city residential lobes would connect to the city center though a network of People Movers, essentially the same concept as today’s theme park attraction. These vehicles would only stop at stations requested by passengers, giving a touch of personalization that was important for Disney, and a sense of individualism that has been central for Elon Musk. In the city center, the People Mover tracks would meet up with a high capacity monorail that could carry passengers to the project’s industrial center, airport, and amusement park. 

Unfortunately Disney couldn’t completely exclude cars from his city, and in the interest of keeping them as far out of sight as possible, he designed a series of tunnels running under the city center, separated into heavy freight and commuter traffic. The first thing I have to say about this is the idea of building and maintaining underground tunnels in the ancestral Seminole wetland on which Disney’s Orlando park stands today is laughable – almost as ridiculous as Elon Musk’s plan to solve Miami’s congestion by tunneling under the already waterlogged city. The second thing is, yes, The Boring Company’s big idea of solving congestion by building a bunch of one lane car tunnels underground is more of a Walt Disney/Robert Moses mashup than an original thought.

Above: Concept art for Disney’s EPCOT including People Mover, monorail, and tunnels for cars and trucks, Below: Concept art for The Boring Company’s network of skinny tunnels under an ambiguous city skyline – maybe Houston or something?

The last stop on our People Mover journey is the 1964 New York World’s Fair where much of the momentum and technology for Walt Disney’s Community of Tomorrow originated. Disney, working alongside proto-cager Robert Moses, directed much of the fair and its exhibitions. The 1964 fair is where the It’s A Small World ride originated and the EPCOT diorama that visitors now pass on Orlando’s People Mover was first exhibited in Disney’s Carousel of Progress exhibit. The technology for propelling the People Mover’s autonomous vehicles around their circuit was first put into use in the Ford pavilion. The Ford Magic Skyway attraction would take visitors aboard one of the manufacturer’s latest car models which would be propelled continuously along a track like the People Mover attraction’s vehicles are today. Accompanied by Walt Disney’s narration, visitors would traverse through a series of dioramas representing the history of the world, starting with the dinosaurs of course, then cavemen inventing the wheel, and then skipping ahead to a city of the future which, in contrast to Walt’s EPCOT concept, gave primary emphasis to the automobile.

From the World’s Fair to Tomorrowland, the masculine tradition of futurism has never really been separate from the automobile and by extension the fossil fuel industry. Because of his devotion to industrial and technological innovation, the forecasts of the publicly anti-car Walt Disney remained closely tied to the auto-industry throughout his life. In light of this history, Elon Musk, from Space-X to Hyperloop to the Boring Company, appears less an innovator than an imagineer, someone who visited Walt Disney World as a kid and has been recycling Walt’s old ideas ever since. So called visionaries like Wright, Moses, Musk, and Disney have always promised Cities of The Future, but no matter how grand their vision, all they ever seem to deliver is Autopia.

Left: The Boring Company’s Las Vegas Convention Center Loop, Right: EPCOT’s 1982 Rainbow Corridor

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