- Title: road to nowhere
- Author: Paris-Marx
- Topic: Documentaries, Technology, Cities
- Editor: Back Books
- Publication date: July 2022
- Number of pages: 272
Ten years ago, the consensus was that self-driving cars or self-driving vehicles (AV) were going to change our cities. The idea was that “the self-driving car will probably be shared, smaller, lighter, slower, and there will probably be about a tenth of them”.
Architect Rachel Skinner wrote in a report with this beautiful image on the cover that stated, “Driverless and Autonomous (AV) vehicles will be transformational. With proper planning, they offer the potential for better quality of life, economic growth, better health. and wider social connections, providing us all with convenient and affordable mobility, regardless of where we live, our age or our ability to drive.”
Over the years, these adorable little AV vehicles never showed up on our doorsteps because the basic problems of not bumping into things and people were harder to solve. One response has been to change people and introduce new regulations to control them, to make them “law-abiding and considerate”. An audio-visual executive, Andrew Ng, “argues that the problem is less about building a perfect driving system than about training passers-by to anticipate autonomous driving behavior. In other words, we can make roads safer for cars rather than the other way around. I called it jaywalking 2.0.
In the end, I concluded that the only way to fix the problem was to build uneven citiesas proposed by Norman Bel Geddes designed for General Motors in the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair.
Now Canadian author Paris Marx, host of the popular podcast “Technology won’t save us,” wrote “Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley is wrong about the future of transportation” where he wonders if all those California geniuses are coming up with some technology that will save us.
Marx begins with a description of Futurama, writing:
“More than eighty years later, we can see the folly of the grand plan presented at Futurama. We have built communities located far from workplaces, shopping centers and key services, which often forces people to travel long distances. For many residents, suburban neighborhoods are not idyllic communities, but places that breed loneliness because they are cut off from others.”
He notes that the problems we face today require new solutions, but that we are co-opted.
“As the current climate crisis deepens and the contradictions in our real transport system become too great to continue ignoring, calls for change are growing. People are demanding better public transport, more bicycle infrastructure and communities that have the services they rely on. But the distribution of power within the economy has changed, and in recent decades new industries have accumulated power – and the capital – to unleash their grand visions of the future. The modern tech industry is chief among them.”
Marx begins with the story of how we got to where we are and how cars took over the roads in jaywalking 1.0, including the battle over cruise control in Cincinnati in the 1920s, through the freeway-building years of the 1950s and 60s. It documents the decline of our city’s public transit as we sold ourselves to the concept of individual freedom to drive where we want. The cost in dollars or lives has been minimized.
All of this provides grist for the mill for Treehugger readers, but then Marx follows the rise of the internet, the smartphone, and the wealthy white libertarian techies and Silicon Valley capitalists who truly believe technology can save us. He quotes critic Evgeny Morozov who described “tech solutionism” and defined it as “an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, narrow-minded solutions – the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED talks – at extremely complex, fluid, and controversial issues.
It’s the intersection of these complex urban problems and the seductive solutions of Silicon Valley that makes this book so interesting. Marx explains how electric cars are still cars and don’t “solve the fundamental problems of a transportation system built around automobiles.” He goes on to explain how taxis were licensed to solve the problem of unregulated jitneys, but how those lessons were forgotten when Uber entered the scene with what were essentially unregulated jitneys, destroying both the industries of taxi and public transport.
Then there are the autonomous vehicles that would now revolutionize travel. This bubble burst when a self-driving Uber car killed Elaine Herzberg. Marx writes that “the dream of the ubiquitous autonomous vehicles we were sold in the early and mid-2010s is not happening,” so don’t expect them to be able to solve the automobile problem.
Then, of course, we have Elon Musk, who dreamed up the Hyperloop as a way to throw a wrench into high-speed rail plans and then tunnels under cities because he didn’t like being stuck in the traffic. Next comes the battle for sidewalks, with the proliferation of electric scooters, dockless bikes and robots stealing our sidewalks.
Marx paints a broad and cohesive picture connecting all of these North American techno-solutions, then points to the alternatives in Europe, where they promote cycling and 15-minute cities. The final chapter and conclusions outline the future of cycling, revitalizing transit and rail, and rebuilding neighborhoods. “Instead of extractive food delivery apps and ghost kitchens, there could be a new community food network,” Marx writes.
With transport, “we need to stop being distracted by Hyperloops and boring companies designed to stifle investment in trains and public transport; on-demand services that decimate worker rights in the service of convenience; and electric sports cars and SUVs that promise a green future while driving a new wave of neo-colonial exploitation [the mining of all the lithium and other elements needed to build them].”
In his blurb for the book, longtime Treehugger contributor Brian Merchant writes, “Paris Marx’s invaluable new book explains how and why big tech’s utopian transportation projects crashed and burned, why these Disasters will continue to find funding if they are not opposed, and what the alternative might look like. The path to a better and more equitable transit future begins with the “Road to Nowhere”.
Merchant, who has never shied away from technology, he wrote the definitive history of the iPhone– but he was aware of his limitations. Technology makes our lives better every day; I love that my phone tells me how long until the next streetcar arrives, a far more useful mode of transportation than the flying cars promised these days. Or as Taras Grescoe tweeted a decade ago: “The real future of the city is 21st century communications and 19th century transportation.” But as Marx noted, “technology should be designed to serve the public, not to shape their way of life in order to increase the power and profits of big business.”
Uber, self-driving cars, delivery robots and ghost kitchens are all distractions. I know it’s heresy, but electric cars are cars and they won’t save us. Marx wrote a wonderful book that explains why and is persuasive about that better and fairer future we could all have if we looked at Main Street instead of Sand Hill Path.
“Road to Nowhere” hits bookstores in July 2022. Available at bookstore.org and other retailers.