'Road to Nowhere' Shows How Silicon Valley Gets Cities and Transportation Wrong

Sand Hill Road and Main Street don't intersect.

Book cover of 'Road to Nowhere'

Paris Marx / Verso Books

  • Title: Road to Nowhere
  • Author: Paris Marx
  • Topic: Non-Fiction, Technology, Cities
  • Publisher: Verso Books
  • Publish Date: July 2022
  • Page Count: 272

A decade ago, the consensus was that self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles (AVs) would change our cities. The thinking was that "the autonomous car will likely be shared, smaller, lighter, slower, and there will likely be about a tenth as many of them."

city view
cities are better with autonomous cars!.

Rachel Skinner of WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff and Nigel Bidwell of Farrells

Architect Rachel Skinner wrote in a report with this lovely image on the cover that stated: "Driverless and autonomous vehicles (AVs) will be transformational. With the right planning, they offer the potential for a better quality of life, economic growth, improved health and broader social connections, by offering convenient and affordable mobility to all of us, regardless of where we live, our age or ability to drive."

As the years went by those lovely little AVs never showed up at our doors, as the fundamental problems of not hitting things and people were harder to solve. One response was to change the people and bring in new regulations to control them, to make them "law-abiding and considerate." One AV executive, Andrew Ng, “argues the problem is less about building a perfect driving system than training bystanders to anticipate self-driving behavior. In other words, we can make roads safe for the cars instead of the other way around.” I called it jaywalking 2.0.

1939 Worlds fair GM Pavilion
1939 Worlds fair GM Pavilion.

Norman Bel Geddes via Wikipedia

Ultimately I concluded the only way to solve the problem was to build grade-separated cities, as 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 "Tech Won't Save Us," has written "Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation" where he questions whether all these geniuses in California are coming up with tech that will save us.

Marx opens with a description of Futurama, writing:

"More than eighty years later, we can see the folly in the grand plan laid out in Futurama. We built communities that are located far from workplaces, retail centers, and key services, which often require people to drive long distances. For many residents, suburban neighborhoods are not idyllic communities, but places that breed loneliness as they are cut off from others." 

He notes the problems we face today need new solutions, but that we are being co-opted.

"As the current climate crisis escalates and the contradictions of our real transportation system become too great to continue ignoring, there are growing calls for change. People are demanding better public transit, more infrastructure for bicycles, and communities that have the services they rely on within walking distance. But the distribution of power within the economy has shifted, and in the past several decades new industries have accumulated the power—and the capital—to unleash their grand visions for the future. The modern tech industry is chief among them."

Marx starts with the history of how we got to where we are and how cars took over the roads in jaywalking 1.0, including the battle over speed governors in Cincinnati in the 1920s, through the highway building years of the '50s and '60s. He documents the decline of our city's public transit as we got sold on the concept of individual freedom to drive wherever we want. The cost in dollars or in lives was downplayed.

This is all grist for the mill to Treehugger readers, but then Marx follows the rise of the internet, the smartphone, and the rich white libertarian techies and Silicon Valley capitalists who really do think that tech can save us. He quotes critic Evgeny Morozov who described “technological solutionism” and defined it as “an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions—the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED Conferences—to problems that are extremely complex, fluid, and contentious.”

It is the intersection of these complex urban issues and the sexy Silicon Valley solutions that make this book so interesting. Marx explains how electric cars are still cars and do not "address the fundamental problems with a transportation system built around automobiles." He goes on to explain how taxis got licensed to solve the problem of unregulated jitneys, but how those lessons were forgotten when Uber hit the scene with what were essentially unregulated jitneys, destroying both the taxi and transit industries. 

Then there are the autonomous vehicles that were going to revolutionize travel by now. That bubble burst when a self-driving Uber car killed Elaine Herzberg. Marx writes that "the dream of ubiquitous autonomous vehicles that we were sold in the early and mid-2010s is not coming," we should not expect that they can solve the problem of the automobile.

Elon Musk gets stuck in traffic
Elon Musk gets stuck in traffic. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Then of course we have Elon Musk, who dreamed up the Hyperloop as a way of throwing a wrench into plans for high-speed rail, and then tunnels under cities because he didn't like getting stuck in traffic. This is followed by the battle over sidewalks, with the proliferation of e-scooters, dockless bikes, and robots stealing our sidewalks

hello robot

Marx paints a broad and coherent picture tying all these North American techno-solutions together, and then points to the alternatives in Europe, where they are promoting cycling and 15-minute cities. The last chapter and conclusions describe a future of bikes, revitalized public transit and rail, and rebuilding neighborhoods. "Instead of extractive food delivery apps and ghost kitchens, there could be a new community food network," writes Marx.

With transportation, "we need to stop being distracted by Hyperloops and Boring Companies designed to stifle investment in trains and transit; the on-demand services that decimate workers' rights in the service of convenience; and the 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 transit projects crashed and burned, why these disasters will keep finding funding if they are not opposed, and what the alternative might look like. The path to a better, more equitable future of transit begins with the 'Road to Nowhere.'"

Merchant, who never shied away from technology—he has written the definitive history of the iPhone—but he was aware of its limitations. Technology makes our lives better every day; I love having my phone tell me how long until the next streetcar arrives, a much more useful form of transport than the flying cars being promised these days. Or as Taras Grescoe tweeted a decade ago: "The real future of the city is 21st-century communications and 19th-century transport." But as Marx notes, "Technology should be built to serve the public, not to shape how they live to increase the power and profits of major corporations." 

Uberautonomous carsdelivery robots, and ghost kitchens are all distractions. I know it is heresy, but electric cars are still cars and they won't save us. Marx has written a wonderful book that explains why, and is persuasive about that better, more equitable future we could all have if we looked to Main Street instead of Sand Hill Road.

"Road to Nowhere" hit bookshelves in July 2022. Available at bookshop.org and other retailers.

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