Is transportation tech leading us on a ‘Road to Nowhere’?

The streets of San Francisco used to be famous for movie car chases. But these days, they're better known as a high-tech laboratory where the latest app-based transportation services and mobility gizmos are tested out before being exported around the world. Over the past decade, The City has been at the forefront of wave after wave of transportation disruption, from Uber to electric scooters to autonomous vehicles.

Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, a new book from 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 are intimately familiar with the hubris of many of the tech industry's transportation "innovations." San Franciscans are likewise uniquely positioned to see the shortcomings of the book's one-sided perspective. Though Marx's criticisms are largely on point, his refusal to explore examples of new technology actually benefiting the public feels overly-pessimistic at a time when cities and the planet are desperate for solutions. 

Despite its title, Road to Nowhere begins 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 auto industry, with a big boost from newspapers, completely reshaped Americans' perception of city streets in the early 1900s.

What were once public spaces shared by pedestrians, cyclists, carriages, street vendors and children at play became the exclusive domain of cars traveling at high speeds. To keep cars moving, the powers that be invented a new crime, "jaywalking." In the ensuing decades, industry and government would go on to reshape the streets themselves, by widening them, ripping out their streetcar tracks, and relegating narrow strips of sidewalk for pedestrians.

By the 1950s, entire blocks, often in Black neighborhoods, were bulldozed to make room for freeways and parking lots. Over the course of the last century, Marx writes, "companies and governments have successfully reoriented our entire lives around automobiles and, in many cases, have decimated more efficient alternatives."  This history explains the bleak transportation status quo in America, where we are fully dependent on a technology that's cooking our planet, kills almost 40,000 people per year (not including deaths from pollution) and leaves us paralyzed by traffic.

This history is also important, Marx argues, because it's at risk of repeating itself. The tech industry claims to have the solutions to our transportation problems: Uber will solve 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 twentieth century, [the tech industry's] primary goal is to remake communities to serve their need for profit and control." The playbook the tech industry used to turn the internet into a money-printing machine has now been unleashed on cities and physical space, Marx writes.

By conquering transportation, tech companies will be able to "constantly track us, collect data about us, and put themselves in the middle of a growing number of transactions." Whether their transportation innovations actually improve transportation, or whether they're necessary at all, is of secondary importance. Citing tech critic Evgeny Morozov, Marx locates the transportation innovations he criticizes under the rubric of "technological solutionism," defined as "an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions... to problems that are extremely complex." Another trap transportation tech falls into 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 the society as a whole."

It is in this state of mind, Marx recounts, that Elon Musk can convince himself that tunnels-for-Teslas will solve traffic for the masses, or that Uber executives could propose a flying car service that would provide transportation to "underserved communities." Ultimately, many of the transportation technologies that are actually coming to fruition only reinforce the car-centric way of life that most tech executives are used to, Marx argues, whether it's Cruise's robo-taxis or the one-to-one replacement of gas-powered cars with electric ones. What's more, the benefits these companies promise are often exaggerated. For years, autonomous vehicle companies have claimed their products are almost ready for market, before moving the goalposts.

Electric vehicles, while undeniably an improvement on gas-powered cars, still have a large environmental footprint due to the rare earth metals in their batteries -- an issue Marx explains in depth. "A more equitable, environmentally conscious transportation system will ultimately require reducing the use of automobiles, regardless of what powers them," Marx writes. That means doubling down on proven green transportation technologies, like buses, trains, bikes and our own two feet.

It's an important point that too often gets drowned out in the chorus of tech boosterism. But what about when tech companies actually do help get people out of their cars? This idea is inconceivable, or at the very least, unutterable to Marx, as evidenced by his perspective on micromobility, the shared bikes and scooters that have flooded cities like San Francisco in recent years.

Marx is favorable toward docked bikeshare systems, but views shared electric scooters as "a powerful industry... trying to take over a public space," whose benefits "would primarily accrue to a small number of executives, investors, and some early employees with stock options -- not to the public at large." 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 those rides provided a political constituency and financial capital for better bike infrastructure; or the role they may have played in sparking the boom in personally owned scooters and e-bikes. Nor does he mention that all of the major docked bikeshare systems in the U.S. are either owned or operated by a big tech company, Lyft.

The problems with dockless scooters that Marx highlights -- short lifespans, blocking the sidewalk, inaccessibility for people with disabilities, scooter companies flouting regulations -- have largely been addressed by San Francisco's innovative scooter permit program. While the Bay Area's flawed Lyft-owned bikeshare system wouldn't make for a great case study, the tremendously popular Lyft-owned Citibike system in New York City surely would, or the publicly-owned, Lyft-operated Capital Bikeshare system in Washington, D.C.  With micromobility, Marx had an opportunity to tell a more complex story about collaboration between the tech industry and city governments that actually led to improved green transportation options for a lot of people.

In fact, the degree of regulation micromobility has been subject to provides a valuable template for how cities could approach autonomous 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 ride-hailing's impact on San Francisco, Marx omits essential context points about why Uber and Lyft got so popular in the first place: Namely that the taxi industry wasn't coming anywhere close to meeting demand, and that transit service was, and still is, woefully inadequate, especially at night.

Plenty of ordinary people -- not just tech executives -- have benefited a great deal from these services, and are now attached to them. It's the same story with cars. Refusing to acknowledge these inconvenient truths won't help lay the groundwork for a more sustainable and equitable transportation paradigm.

If recent history is a model, shifting that paradigm will be a Herculean task. San Francisco's efforts to curtail car access on a few streets have inspired a major backlash; The City's latest public transit bond measure failed to pass. At the state and federal level, the biggest transportation priority these days has been the price of gas.

Clearly, the tech industry isn't the only foe of truly green transportation.

If a handful of tech companies are willing to be on the right side of that fight, our cities and our planet could certainly use the help.