There is perhaps no piece of technology more ubiquitous in the United States than the car. 83 percent of Americans drive almost every day, and three-quarters of American workers commuted by car in 2019. Outside of a handful of relatively dense cities like New York and Washington, DC, it’s difficult to get around without a car of your own to go to work, the grocery store, the hospital, or nearly anywhere else.
But the car’s rise to dominance was anything but predestined, as Paris Marx argues in their new book, Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation. Marx — a writer and podcast host who critiques tech, media, and cities — explores how local governments and corporations mobilized to have cities accommodate cars, leading to an inextricable dependence on them.
Today, Silicon Valley tech companies are getting into the business of redesigning American urban life, just as auto companies did previously. Though Big Tech companies claim they’re solving traffic and climate change, Marx argues that the techno-utopian visions around ride-sharing, electric cars, and autonomous vehicles have done little to truly address the root of these problems, and may actually be making things worse.
According to Marx, technology will not solve urban transportation and planning problems, but changing our political calculus will. No new fancy gadget will solve the fundamental problem of modern American transportation.
“Ultimately,” Marx said, “there needs to be organized movements of residents, workers, people who are demanding an alternative to how things work right now. That’s certainly not incompatible with more democracy within communities. But it certainly does require work.”
To learn more about the future of transportation in the United States, I spoke with Marx about their new book. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You write in your book: “Owning a vehicle is not a choice, it is a necessity, and to suggest otherwise would be silly.” How did cars go from being a luxury good for the wealthy to an indispensable good for the masses?
There is this powerful lobby of interests that do want to see the automobile become the dominant mode of transportation. There’s this narrative of the automobile as though it’s providing freedom, as though all of us are empowered when we have our automobiles, and this is reinforced in automotive advertising — you see the cars driving on the wide open roads. But anyone who actually drives the car regularly would know how often they’re stuck in traffic.
The reality of the automobile is quite different from the fiction that we’re sold; the reality is an almost radical dependence rather than a degree of freedom. There’s this high cost of the automobile where you need to buy it in order to get around. You need to pay your insurance, the oil, the gas or the diesel to power it. You need to pay for your occasional maintenance. For some people, those bills can disrupt their finances and their economic security. The idea that this is an example of freedom and not of dependency, in order to enrich a certain number of corporations, is quite laughable to me.
Automotive supremacy is this idea that we’ve reached this point where for many people, there is really no alternative because transit systems were defunded because everyone had an automobile or was expected to have an automobile. That’s a serious problem. It’s not actually as beneficial as it’s been sold to us, as we see in this moment where once again gas prices are through the roof. A lot of people are suffering and struggling as a result.
How did the 2008 recession and the decade after impact the tech industry’s relationship to public infrastructure?
When we’re looking at post-2008, the economy is in a really difficult place. People have lost jobs, governments are looking for ways to restore those jobs to show that the economy is growing, that the economy is dynamic, and whatnot. The tech industry is really well placed to fit perfectly into that narrative: “Technology is bringing progress. We need to accept what these Silicon Valley companies are doing because this is the future.” After the recession, there’s this real desire to look at the tech industry and believe what they’re selling us as a positive vision that is making the world better and ignoring the potential downsides of that. That’s not to say that, at that moment, there were not people who were speaking out critically. It’s just that it doesn’t get nearly the amount of attention.
There’s this move into the city — there’s this desire to go beyond what’s just happening on your computer and to integrate the internet itself into so many other parts of the world. The idea is that this will make things better, this will improve things. But I think, especially now more than a decade on from that, it’s time for a reckoning of reassessment and to recenter ourselves, especially post-pandemic. How do we think about technology in the tech industry now? And how do we ensure we don’t get caught up in these promises, again, in a really uncritical way?
You discuss in great detail this linear idea of progress promoted by Silicon Valley, which positions technology as the primary driver of the last century of urban development. Why can’t we solve our transportation, urban planning, and mobility problems with technological solutions?
It doesn’t really change anything about the larger construction of our communities. Early on, Uber promised it was going to reduce car ownership, fix traffic, make transportation more accessible, empower drivers, all of these things. The research has shown us quite conclusively that it makes traffic worse, does very little to car ownership, and mainly serves young, college-educated, urban dwellers earning above-average income. Increasingly, we see prices going up, and convenience of the service is going down. Some people are even going back to taxis.
Jarrett Walker, who’s a transportation planner, talks about how the problem here is not a technological one, but a geometric one. We only have so much space in our communities in our cities. A new technology doesn’t change that. If we really want to solve these more fundamental transportation problems that arise from the mass ownership and mass use of the automobile, we need to deal with it at its core. It’s a political problem that has been created over the course of many decades. Adding a new technology to cars isn’t actually going to solve those problems.
Arguably, what we’ve seen over the past decade or so is that adding those technologies is actually making things worse. We need to stop believing that it’s just technology that could solve these problems. But we need to get to like the fundamental politics of it, and deal with that question, before these things are going to be fixed.
What is the difference between transportation as envisioned by Big Tech and the auto companies, and transportation as a public service? And why is that more of a political question than a technological question?
There’s a big benefit to these companies to have a transportation system that is dependent on automobiles. There’s a lot of ways companies can profit from that, whether it’s the automotive company that’s selling you the vehicle, the garage that’s providing service to the vehicle, the gas station and the oil companies that are selling you the product to power the vehicle, the insurance company that is insuring the vehicle, and on and on. I would argue that what we’re largely seeing with the tech companies is not really the desire to change that on a large scale, but rather to insert themselves into that pre-existing relationship, so they can take their own cut of that as well.
If we were to reorient around public transportation, collective forms of transportation, and a greater degree of cycling, I would argue that there’s less profit opportunity for a lot of companies. So naturally, there is a reluctance to accept that as a future of transportation, or even for governments to pursue that. Because then it means you can’t point to all the manufacturing jobs for cars that are being created. Or maybe those factories would eventually close, because people aren’t buying so many cars anymore.
You can see how there are two very different visions that have different sets of benefits. The one that we have so far chosen is one that really benefits companies, I would say, at the expense of the public. We need to find a way to reorient ourselves to get a different system of transportation that’s more beneficial to us, rather than companies that want to profit from us.
What would it mean for there to be democratic power and control over new and emerging technologies?
It can be a difficult proposition because the way that we plan our societies right now — the way that things work is quite undemocratic. We leave a lot to these private corporations, and even the governments that we have can be bought off by a lot of these commercial interests. So a lot of decisions don’t necessarily reflect the desires of the public. I think that people would say that with how planning processes can be put together, it’s possible for a small number of very vocal people to control that and ensure it works in very negative and regressive ways. There are certainly proposals for how these sorts of things could work to ensure that you’re including a greater number of voices that would usually be excluded in these kinds of conversations. But there would also need to be a component of educating people of the trade-offs of the different kinds of systems that are available to them.
What futures lie ahead of us if American society continues on its current transportation course?
It’s not a great future, really. We’re kind of stuck in this bind, where we’re dependent on these automobiles, where the cost of using them is increasing, where the number of deaths on the road continues to rise every year. If we do a mass transition to electric vehicles, as it’s being pushed by these companies, and also by the governments, I think that we’re going to find that that doesn’t solve the climate problem of the transportation system to the degree that we’re being sold right now. It will also continue these kinds of neo-colonial relationships between the Global North, and the countries where a lot of this mining is actually going to happen in parts of South America, Asia, Africa. That would have severe consequences for a lot of communities that would be near those mines in the Global South.
Even further than that, if we keep believing what these tech folks are telling us, then I think that we’re heading toward a future that is more unequal, where wealth is even further in the hands of a very small number of people. You can see technologies being used within the city to further entrench these divides, even as they’re sold to us as greater convenience and accessibility for people. The usual promises that are made don’t get followed through on. There’s a real risk here that if we don’t really start to deal with the politics of these problems, and we keep believing that the techno solutions are going to lead us to a better future, that the reality that we’re dealing with just keeps getting worse and worse and worse.