Over the past 15 years, my brain has become like a Benson Bubbler, a lot of flow in and out, but not much retention.
That is what makes a book like Paris Marx’s Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation so useful. Surely I read about all this as it was happening, but the author’s clarity and framing brings today’s battle over who is allowed to benefit from a city into focus.
Marx’s contribution is to link the history of automobility in the 20th century to what we are living through now — Silicon Valley’s attempt to remake mobility for their profit.
The book begins with an engaging synopsis of how the car came to dominate US transportation. Its first chapter covers the same ground as Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, but is shorter and less academic. Marx is a pleasure to read and has a gift for presenting a lot of material so smoothly that it never overwhelms the reader.
He notes that the bicycle and streetcar were early disruptors of urban transportation, and cites researchers John Falcocchio and Herbert Levinson regarding how new transportation technologies have tended to increase travel speeds. The researchers continue, “each time travel speed has increased, the amount of land used for urban growth has increased and population density has decreased.” This explains the fundamental connection between land use and transportation.
But it took the arrival of the automobile, and its mass-production, to alter cities in such a condensed time frame that it can be difficult for us to grasp.
From outrage to normalization
In 1908, there were 8,000 cars on the road. Twelve years later, by 1920, that number had increased by three orders of magnitude to 8 million. Congestion and carnage ensued and reformers pushed back hard.
Children were most vulnerable to the onslaught of cars, and urban residents reached for the language of war to express fury over their deaths. Mothers of children killed by cars were called white- or gold-star mothers, like those who had lost children in Europe. Bells tolled for the dead and lists of names were recited. It was widely publicized that in the four years following Armistice Day more Americans were killed in car crashes than “had died in the battle of France.”
A widespread campaign to restrict automobiles began—Cincinnati residents even pushed for an automatic speed limiter for cars!
If this all sounds a little bit like now, Marx argues that it is, except that mass death by car had yet to be normalized, “Today, if a pedestrian dies by venturing into the street, people often respond by questioning why they were there in the first place.”
In the face of calls for regulation, automakers realized that “the streets did not properly accommodate their product,” and the rest is history. Those set to profit from cars lobbied to redesign cities and succeeded. Pedestrians were restricted to sidewalks and crosswalks, the idea of a “jaywalker” was born.
From that well-trodden history, Marx pivots to the meat of his book, that tech’s attempt to capture transportation perpetuates the problems of automobility, that it does not benefit average people, but rather remakes cities in a form appealing to Silicon Valley’s elite:
These new infrastructures promoted by Musk and Uber executives use egalitarian language to gain public support for a vision of mobility where the urban form and transport systems effectively stay the same, but wealthy people have new ways of paying to opt out of the problems that other residents have to experience every single day.
And in this well-researched and documented book he covers it all: autonomous cars, the 3-D transit system (tunnels and flying cars), electric vehicles, ride-sharing, and dockless micromobility (scooters, bikes). He also details the negative impact the existing services have had on workers, regulation, transit, and congestion. Their presence is not neutral.
Take autonomous cars. One criticism Marx has is that they don’t work, and that testing them has been dangerous. He recounts the cascade of errors and irresponsibility that led to the 2018 death of a woman crossing the street with a bicycle by one of Uber’s self-driving cars. The most shocking aspect of the story to me is the lack of regulatory scrutiny.
Of Uber, Marx writes,
The actions of Uber executives and engineers are in line with the “move fast and break things” culture that is promoted in Silicon Valley, one which is motivated first and foremost by beating competitors to market by launching a minimum viable product and capturing market share as quickly as possible in the pursuit of monopoly.
Unfortunately for all of us, this usually leaves regulators and cities several steps behind in a game of catch-up. But like the automotive interests on the 1920s, tech suggests that maybe the environment should change to better accommodate their products. Autonomous cars would function better if pedestrians wore beacons signaling their presence.
About those pedestrians, Marx’s take on dockless e-scooters shifted my thinking a little. In a chapter titled “The coming fight for the sidewalk,” he presents the encroachment of rental scooters and bikes on the sidewalk in light of the historic relegation of pedestrians to “thin strips” on the side of the road. He also pushes back against the idea that everyone who opposes change is a NIMBY:
The problem with framing the negative response to micromobility as a typical reaction by people who do not know better or simply oppose any and all change is that it ignores the power dynamics at play in the rollout of these services. Residents’ anger at the littering of scooters throughout their communities should instead be seen through the lens of the opposition to the automobile in the 1920s…
Marx ends the book by broadening his discussion beyond transportation to tech’s goal of a “frictionless” society, one in which people don’t get in the way of deliveries, and in which billionaires get their cut of every interaction. Think about that the next time you use Silicon Valley to mediate your food order.
All in all, this book is both a good introduction to transportation issues for someone new to them, and also time well spent for those already familiar with the subject. It is very well researched, with a lot of footnotes, and it is surprisingly easy to read. Marx is a good writer. I think I’ll be keeping this book next to my computer for handy reference.