Paris Marx, Road to nowhere: What Silicon Valley gets wrong about the future of transportation

IssueFebruary - March 2023
Review by Andrea Needham

Paris Marx is a Canadian tech writer and host of the 'Tech Won't Save Us' podcast – a view which more or less sums up this enraging and englightening book. Electric cars, autonomous cars, ridesharing apps, Elon Musk's tunnels, beyond-batshit ideas like flying cars. What do they all have in common? They're 'solutions' to our transport problems dreamt up by men who have no interest in the vital issue of how we do transport such that it is equitable, safe, affordable and low-carbon. What they want is shiny and profitable 'tech' solutions aimed at wealthy white men, whose main desire is for the peasants (that's the rest of us) to get off the road. 

RtN starts off with a quick whiz through US transport history. A key question is why cars came out on top in the transport race. The answer, according to Marx, is not that it was the best choice of transport but that carmakers made it so, by lobbying for legislation favourable to motorists, by buying up and destroying public transport systems, by working hand in hand with the fossil fuel companies to ensure that cars became the default mode of transport. American lawmakers joined in, making zoning laws which cause immense urban sprawl. 

A key problem with private cars, most sane observers would agree, is that there are just too damn many of them. From 1m cars on the UK roads in 1930, by 2021 we had reached almost 33m. They fill our urban areas, pollute our air, kill us quickly in accidents, or slowly via carbon emissions. 'Aha!', you'd think we'd cry, 'We must get rid of cars and make it easy to live without one.;

Not so, according to the likes of Elon Musk and his techy pals. The answer is – surprise! - tech. After all, electric vehicles (EVs) are green – aren't they? In fact, as Marx points out, they only appear so because the dominant narrative focusses narrowly on tailpipe emissions. Add in the problems of batteries (pollution caused by mineral mining, which takes place predominantly in poor communities who will see no benefit from EVs; the huge amount of water needed to produce lithium; the possibility of future wars over minerals) and EVs start to look a little less green. And EVs do nothing to address the other key problems of safety, congestion and air pollution (car tyres produce vastly more particulate pollution than exhausts). It's easy to see that – whatever the King of Tesla would have us believe – EVs are not the solution to our transport woes. They're a 'solution' aimed at the rich, which give carmakers an unprecedented opportunity to sell even more cars.

Elon Musk has another wheeze: autonomous vehicles (AVs). Get rid of human error, free drivers up to do useful stuff as they travel (like you can do in, er, a train?) What's not to like? Well, Marx quotes Andrew Ng, one of the co-founders of the Google  Brain deep-learning AI team: 'the problem is less about building a perfect driving system than training bystanders to anticipate self-driving behaviour' (emphasis added). In other words, the rest of us would have to be restricted (eg by pedestrian gates which would allow us to cross only when it was convenient to car users) in order to allow AVs to function on a large scale. 

Road to Nowhere also looks at Uber, a company which lost a staggering $25bn between 2016-20, and is still losing money, but is playing the long game in terms of transport monopolies. Marx points out what Uber has achieved, though: it has decimated the taxi industry and labour protections for taxi drivers. Marx says that Silicon Valley hates walking: there is an obsession with the 'last-mile solution'. That's because the people creating these 'solutions' simply can't imagine using public transport and having to walk to the bus stop or train station. They want a city without pedestrians, a city where we live in gated communities and are driven – or fly – to within a few feet of where we want to be. But how could that possibly work for any but a tiny elite?

So Paris Marx is down on tech transport 'solutions'. But what's their alternative? What it boils down to is that we can't leave this stuff to the market: cities need to invest in public transport in the way they've historically invested in cars. They note that in many cities (particularly in North America but the same could be said of many British cities), public transport has been treated as 'the last resort for marginalized groups'. That needs to change, Marx says, with public transport run as a public service, free and paid for with money taken from car infrastructure. Planners should use their powers to progressively reduce the space given to cars and to expand public spaces. And above all, our transport problems require 'a new politics that recognizes economic growth and technological innovation do not guarantee social progress'.

Amen to that.