The streets of San Francisco were once famous for car chases. But these days, they’re better known as a high-tech lab where the latest app-based transport services and mobility gadgets are tested before being exported around the world. Over the past decade, the city has been at the forefront of successive waves of transportation disruption, from Uber to electric scooters to self-driving vehicles.
Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley is wrong about the future of transportationa new book by Verso by Canadian tech writer Paris Marx, takes a critical look at these and other transportation technologies.
The book is of particular interest to San Franciscans, who know intimately the hubris of many of the tech industry’s transportation “innovations.” San Franciscans are also uniquely positioned to see the shortcomings of the book’s one-sided perspective. While Marx’s critiques are broadly on point, his refusal to explore examples of new technologies actually benefiting the public seems overly pessimistic at a time when cities and the planet are in desperate need of solutions.
Despite its title, road to nowhere starts in the past. The first chapter provides a concise history of the great disruptive transportation technology of the 20th century: the automobile.
Marx describes how the automobile industry, heavily boosted by newspapers, completely reshaped Americans’ perception of city streets in the early 1900s. What were once public spaces shared by pedestrians, cyclists, horse-drawn carriages, street vendors and children playing became the exclusive domain of cars traveling at high speed. To make cars move forward, the powers that be have invented a new crime, “jaywalking”.
In the decades that followed, industry and government continued to reshape the streets themselves, widening them, ripping up their streetcar tracks and relegating narrow strips of sidewalk to pedestrians. In the 1950s, entire city blocks, often in black neighborhoods, were bulldozed to make way for freeways and parking lots. Over the past century, Marx writes, “corporations and governments have managed to reorient our entire lives around the automobile and, in many cases, have decimated the more efficient alternatives.”
This story explains America’s grim transportation status quo, where we’re entirely dependent on technology that’s cooking our planet, killing nearly 40,000 people a year (not counting pollution deaths), and leaving us paralyzed by traffic. . This history is also important, argues Marx, because it risks repeating itself.
The tech industry claims to have the solutions to our transportation problems: Uber will solve the traffic! Tesla will solve climate change! Waymo will solve street safety! But Marx warns readers not to be fooled by their altruistic rhetoric: “As with the automotive interests of the 20th century, [the tech industry’s] The main objective is to recreate communities to meet their need for profit and control.
The playbook used by the tech industry to turn the internet into a money-printing machine has now been cast on cities and physical space, writes Marx. By conquering transportation, tech companies will be able to “constantly track us, collect data about us, and place themselves in the middle of an increasing number of transactions.” Whether their transportation innovations actually improve transportation, or whether they are needed at all, is of secondary importance.
Quoting tech critic Evgeny Morozov, Marx places the transportation innovations he criticizes under the rubric of “tech solutionism,” defined as “an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions…to extremely complex problems”.
Another pitfall into which transportation technology falls is “elite projection”, a term coined by transportation planner Jarrett Walker to describe “the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for society as a whole.”
It is in this mindset, Marx says, that Elon Musk can convince himself that tunnels for Tesla will solve traffic for the masses, or that Uber executives could come up with a flying car service that would provide transportation. to “underserved communities”. Ultimately, many of the transportation technologies that come to fruition only reinforce the car-centric lifestyle that most tech leaders are accustomed to, Marx argues, whether it’s robo-taxis of Cruise or the individual replacement of gasoline. motor cars with electric cars.
In addition, the benefits promised by these companies are often exaggerated. For years, self-driving vehicle makers have claimed their products are almost ready for market, before moving the goal posts.
Electric vehicles, while undeniably an improvement over gasoline-powered cars, still have a large environmental footprint due to rare earth metals in their batteries – a problem Marx explains in depth.
“A more equitable and environmentally friendly transportation system will ultimately require reducing the use of automobiles, regardless of their engine,” Marx writes. This means doubling down on proven green transportation technologies, such as buses, trains, bicycles and our two feet.
This is an important point that is too often drowned in the chorus of technological boosterism. But what about when tech companies actually help people get out of their cars? This idea is inconceivable, or at the very least, inexpressible for Marx, as evidenced by his views on micromobility, the shared bicycles and scooters that have flooded cities like San Francisco in recent years.
Marx favors dockside bike-sharing systems, but sees shared electric scooters as “a powerful industry…trying to take over public space,” the benefits of which would “mainly accrue to a small number of executives, d investors and some early employees with stock options – not to the general public.
Marx makes no mention of the hundreds of millions of rides Americans have taken on shared scooters – 88.5 million in 2019 alone, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials; how these rides provided a political constituency and financial capital for better cycling infrastructure; or the role they may have played in the rise of personal electric scooters and bicycles. It also fails to mention that all of the major bike-sharing systems anchored in the United States are owned or operated by a major tech company, Lyft.
The problems with dockless scooters that Marx highlights – short lifespans, curb blockage, inaccessibility for people with disabilities, scooter companies that flout regulations – have been largely addressed by San Francisco’s innovative scooter permit program. While Lyft’s flawed bikeshare system in the Bay Area wouldn’t make a great case study, Lyft’s hugely popular Citibike system in New York surely would, or the Capital Bikeshare system operated by Lyft in Washington. , CC
With micromobility, Marx had the opportunity to tell a more complex story about the collaboration between the tech industry and city governments that actually led to improved green transportation options for many people. In fact, the degree of regulation to which micromobility has been subjected provides a valuable model of how cities could approach self-driving vehicles and cars writ large — if not for state rules that often prevent them from doing so.
Marx also avoids thorny political questions. In his withering and largely accurate account of ridesharing’s impact on San Francisco, Marx omits key points of context about why Uber and Lyft became so popular in the first place: namely, that the taxi industry doesn’t was nowhere near meeting demand. , and that public transport service was, and still is, woefully inadequate, especially at night. Many ordinary people – not just senior tech executives – have benefited a lot from these services and are now attached to them. It’s the same story with cars. Refusing to acknowledge these inconvenient truths will not help lay the groundwork for a more sustainable and equitable transportation paradigm.
If recent history is any pattern, changing that paradigm will be a Herculean task. San Francisco’s efforts to restrict car access to a few streets drew a major backlash; The City’s last public transport obligation measure was not adopted. At the state and federal levels, the biggest priority when it comes to transportation these days has been gas prices. Clearly, the tech industry isn’t the only enemy of truly green transportation. If a handful of tech companies are willing to be on the right side of this fight, our cities and our planet could definitely use that help.