Transit Democracy: Paris Marx’s Road to Nowhere

Matthew James Seidel


Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation is available from Verso Books.

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Nothing quite captures the enormous chasm between capitalist promises about the future of transportation and our present-day reality than the typical car commercial. These commercials are nearly indistinguishable, and not just in surface details. (Notice how there are, improbably, never any other cars on the road.) Rather, they all push the same alluring message: with a car, you can go wherever you want, whenever you want, as fast as you want. With a car, you are free.

Actors in these commercials have the luxury of barreling down empty streets. Real drivers do not. Far from offering freedom, cars are more likely to be claustrophobic cells that move people to work at a glacial pace, when they’re not entirely stationary in miles of traffic. Despite their disadvantages, not least of all the exorbitant costs it takes to maintain them, cars are essential for the vast majority. Buses and trains might be practical for urban workers, though budget cuts have increasingly undermined their utility. But for everyone else, the distances between home, work, the grocery store, schools, hospitals, and other essentials are just too far to realistically travel by any other means. Owning a car, then, is effectively a necessity. Given this situation, it’s easy to conclude that in the U.S., when it comes to transportation, there is no alternative.

The costs of automobiles are not purely economic. A staggering number of people are regularly killed or maimed by cars. In the U.S. alone, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated in early May 2022 that, “43,000 people were killed on US roads last year, the highest in 16 years.”  These deaths don’t even take into account all those slowly poisoned by tailpipe emissions or who collectively suffer the myriad effects of the climate crisis that the auto industry has played no small part in creating. Considering, let alone implementing, alternatives to this self-destructive system requires us to break out of the narrow confines of the stagnant neoliberal imagination. We must question not how we might adapt to the world capitalism has created, but how we might change that world. It is not a law of nature that the life’s necessities must be separated by vast distances. Nor should we accept as common sense the notion that public modes of transportation should be neglected and underfunded while cars dominate more and more space. The necessity of cars is not a given—it is a political decision. 

Yet if we want to make a radical new future, we must do more than simply resist capitalist offensives—whether it be Elon Musk’s failed and quixotic vision of a “Hyperloop” that has distracted from efforts to improve existing public transit or Uber’s campaign to strip workers of their rights by creating a new class of pseudo-employees. Instead, we must educate ourselves about the origins of our automobile-dominated world and learn about the roads not taken. We must also understand how the technological determinism that is so fundamental to Silicon Valley ideology is a driving force in capitalism’s effort to further erode public space for the sake of corporate profit.

Most of all, we must articulate a people-oriented framework for the future of transportation that prioritizes the welfare of the public, rather than a handful of billionaires whose myopic vision has gone unchallenged for much too long. These tasks are critical to reimagining transportation. Fortunately, Paris Marx’s Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation gives us everything we need to accomplish all three.

Besides writing regularly on the intersection of technology and politics on various platforms, Paris Marx runs the weekly podcast Tech Won’t Save Us. Each episode features one or more guests who talk about issues ranging from how Spotify is changing music to video game worker unionization efforts to the cynical con that is cryptocurrency. What underlies the wide variety of discussions is an ethos that rejects the assumption that technology has no inherent political agenda or bias. Marx demonstrates time and again that technology is never apolitical in its origin, implementation, and certainly not its consequences.

This position is not anti-technology, but instead, in Marx’s words, “recognizes that technology is not the primary driver in creating fairer and more equitable cities and transportation systems.” Furthermore, for technology to truly benefit everyone, public policy must ensure that it is wielded in a democratic manner and not by unaccountable technocrats and corporations. Their book Road to Nowhere has that same ethos at its core—much like Marx’s approach on episodes of Tech Won’t Save Us, the book is thorough interrogation of a subject that does not receive the in-depth scrutiny it deserves, relative to the impact it has on our lives. 

Road to Nowhere opens with General Motors’s “Futurama” exhibition at the New York World’s Fair that ran from April 1939 to October 1940, where visitors were primed with a relentlessly positive vision of the future. “Coming out of the Great Depression,” Marx writes, “people had lost their hope for the future. Poverty was a widespread reality, and there was no time to think about grandiose visions of a transformed society when every day was a struggle just to put food on the table. The World’s Fair… was an attempt to change that.”

What the Futurama exhibition depicted was a “suburban, auto-oriented future [that] offered market opportunities for automotive companies, property developers, and consumer goods manufacturers.” It also featured extensive pedestrian infrastructure and promised “radio signals to guide [automobiles] without human drivers.” Of course, “the pedestrian infrastructure never materialized.” Pedestrians have for decades lost literal ground as automobiles (and, more recently, robots) encroach onto public space. And automated cars remain at best troubled and at worst a fantasy, despite Musk’s promises that they would be fully operational within ten years—ten years ago. The consumerist part of the exhibition’s vision did indeed come to pass, but it would be a grave mistake to think they “correctly predicted” the future. Rather, “they made it a reality.”

Marx recognizes that the world prior to this corporate reshaping is difficult to imagine. “93% of [U.S] roads were dirt,” and “streets were not the exclusive domain of the automobile [but were] shared by horse-drawn carriages, streetcars, bicyclists, and pedestrians.” In fact, the street “was even a space where children could play.” By 1920, however, the number of deaths brought on by automobiles was already getting out of control, and “a movement grew to draw attention to the mounting death toll and demand action.”

In 1919, Detroit officials ordered “the bells at City Hall, every school, and even a church and a fire station tolled twice daily on every day that a life was lost… the names of the dead were also read out to school children by teachers or police officers.” This, too, is hard to imagine at a time when millions of deaths caused by cars is accepted as a fact of life. But in these early days, “mass death caused by automobiles had not yet been normalized.” The way that the auto industry, and later Silicon Valley, works to normalize the most devastating consequences of its products proves to be a running theme throughout Road to Nowhere.

The auto industry retaliated on multiple fronts. First, the push for regulation had to be killed before it could threaten corporate profits. To wage this counteroffensive, an alliance formed between “automotive manufacturers, their dealers… local auto clubs,” along with “oil companies[,] suppliers of key materials such as steel and rubber; and the real estate and construction industries who built the roads and suburban communities.”

The business community also pushed the cynical narrative that to demand regulation of automobiles was to stand against progress itself. And finally, they remade the streets and dismantled alternatives like country’s existing systems of streetcars so that buying a personal automobile became the only available option. Marx convincingly makes the case that, in short, cars did not change society–society was changed to suit cars.

After providing this important historical context, Marx moves on to address Silicon Valley’s unique role in exacerbating longstanding problems and creating new ones. The wasteful, ableist, inefficient, and often farcical “solutions” pushed by Silicon Valley corporations and techno-utopians is rooted in what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have labeled “the Californian Ideology.” This worldview, which permeates Silicon Valley, “simultaneously reflects the disciplines of market economics and the freedoms of hippie artisanship. This bizarre hybrid is only made possible through a nearly universal belief in technological determinism.”

The California Ideology can be traced, in part, to a faction of the 1960s counterculture known as the communalists. In stark contrast to the New Left, who “believed that political struggle was essential to tear down the oppressive structures of contemporary capitalist society,” the communalists “abandon[ed] politics altogether” in order to “seek out individualized solutions.” The result was the belief that, like the smug heroes of an Ayn Rand novel, corporations could function as an expression of an individual will. This is reflected in the way Elon Musk likes to portray himself as a techno-savior who, through his various companies, can offer deliverance from, for example, climate change—unlike a sclerotic government. (This narrative conveniently ignores the fact that, much like Silicon Valley as a whole, he has relied on and continues to rely on billions in government support.)

The assumption that new technologies can solve any social problem, fundamental to the Californian Ideology, has led to a situation in which, as Marx writes, “executives, venture capitalists, and other important figures associated with the tech industry do not take the time to understand the real problems they claim to solve, and instead make assumptions about the problems and their root causes to legitimize their preconceived solutions.”

Transit planner Jarrett Walker calls this “elite projection,” wherein “relatively fortunate and influential people” assume that what they “find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole.” Of course, Silicon Valley’s solutions are always pitched as a boon to the public. Uber, for example, promised to reduce congestion and offer a stable income to its drivers, among other things, in attempts to assuage public concerns as it worked to thwart regulation. All of these promises were soon broken.

In Marx’s analysis, Uber’s activities are exemplary of multiple destructive processes. It is one of many tech companies that have “disrupted” an industry (in its case, taxis) to the detriment of society. Uber was able to do this because the company could “take advantage of the large pool of precarious labor that lingered after the 2008 recession”—much like the auto industry was able to prey on desperate people during the Great Depression. But Uber has not just been supported by Silicon Valley executives and venture capitalists. Because it is pushing a deregulatory agenda, it has “also had the support of the network of conservative and libertarian think tanks… built in the preceding decades by right-wing billionaires such as the Koch brothers.” 

Backed by this coalition of the elite, Uber also directly facilitates class warfare. This was most evident when the company, along with DoorDash, Lyft, and their supporters, put $200 million into passing California’s Prop 22. This effort, ultimately successful, strictly defined their workers as independent contractors, denying them any of the benefits that employees receive, or even a minimum wage. Uber may have yet to make a profit, but it still has been of great benefit to select investors and the capitalist class, who have a perennial interest in combating regulation and sapping labor’s already-diminished strength.

Until quite recently, Silicon Valley was able to impose its ill-conceived solutions on the public as it rode a wave of techno-optimism that surged in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. Figures like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk were treated as prophets who would usher in a new era, profiled in fawning pieces by a largely uncritical media. Now that we have seen just how much havoc corporations like Google, Uber, Tesla, Facebook, and Amazon have wrought, that optimism has faded.

In order to continue imposing their interests, Silicon Valley has turned to new ways of marketing their schemes. One of their most effective tactics has been to claim that they are helping advance a sustainable economy via the development of various forms of green tech, especially electric cars. This is deeply ironic, given that it was automobile corporations that prevented electric cars from becoming widespread all the way back in 1897.

“For about a decade,” Marx writes, “the electric vehicle was poised to win” in the fight against vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine. Unfortunately, interests like utility companies failed to adequately support the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC). At the same time, auto manufacturers, oil companies, and other powerful entities were forming an alliance. The EVC also faltered in producing a standardized vehicle and streamlining production, ensuring its demise. 

With the climate crisis upon us, capitalists have been keen to market electric cars to attract new customers. However, though electric cars do not produce tailpipe emissions, they are far from neutral in their environmental impact. Marx reveals that the electric car industry, which depends on elements like cobalt and lithium, is in fact exacerbating the climate crisis at multiple sites along the supply chain. The cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in only one example, have devastated local communities, contaminating water sources and leading to “a high rate of birth defects.”

Extracting lithium, meanwhile, “requires sucking up vast quantities of salt brine to be evaporated. The process is not only water intensive, but as the amount of brine is reduced, the water table drops, pulling fresh water from nearby sources and, by extension, the communities that rely on them.” High rates of emissions are also found elsewhere throughout the manufacturing process.

Marx warns “there is a significant risk… the shift to a ‘green’ economy that relies on increased extraction will continue rather than challenge the long-standing neocolonial relationship between powerful countries in the Global North which extract resources and wealth from the Global South.” To make matters worse, automakers have recently been promoting larger vehicles, like Tesla’s bizarre Cybertruck and Ford’s new electric F-150 pickup. These will “require larger batteries, which means more extracted material,” and “could make local air pollution worse.”

The dream of the self-driving car is another instance of technological utopianism that has been foisted on a public eager for a hopeful future. Uber’s autonomous vehicles proved to come with major caveats and were far from fully operational. In 2018, an autonomous vehicle with a distracted human overseer killed a woman in Arizona. Uber had also “cut corners on safety in order to make the vehicles appear more successfully autonomous [and] cut the number of safety drivers per vehicle from two to one so it could have more vehicles on the road.” Uber has since given up on its driverless car initiatives and turned its attention to squeezing as much as possible from its human workforce. On the whole, autonomous vehicles have proven far less feasible than expected, and tech companies can continue to test unreliable, unsafe products on an unsuspecting public, in an environment of widespread corporate impunity. As with Uber’s role in stripping workers of their rights, Marx never lets us forget how present-day struggles fit into the larger scheme.

 

Through their incisive analysis, Marx exposes the false promises of the tech industry, from “green,” automated, and flying cars to robots that obscure the human labor that powers them. They also tie the unfolding story of the automobile industry to capitalism’s development over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. Near the end of their book, Marx explores the futures that Silicon Valley seems poised to help bring about: a future of widening class divisions and intensifying exploitation as tech-giant monopolies capture every extent of the market. (Researcher David A. Banks has also interrogated the closely related proliferation of just-in-time delivery and subscription luxuries, in which the logic of profit and capital is able to metastasize and pervade all corners of our lives.) Our app-mediated world seems to be trending towards increasingly totalized corporate control and surveillance, in transportation and beyond. Technological capitalism is cannibalizing public goods, homogenizing culture, and pampering the jet-setting privileged, while relying on precarious labor and entrenching wealth disparities.

But Road to Nowhere is not merely a grim portrait of the present. Marx uses the final chapters to highlight examples where governments and movements have reasserted control over public space. Marx points out measures taken in Oslo to encourage people to use bicycles instead of cars and improved public transit. In France, the “15-minute city” initiative aimed to “turn Paris into a series of walkable neighborhoods where virtually everything that people needed in their day-to-day lives would be accessible within fifteen minutes of their home.” Marx makes it clear that these measures in Oslo and Paris are neither perfect nor sufficient to confront the scale of the multiple crises that lay before us. But they do provide small examples that refute the lie Silicon Valley has pushed for decades that the market is best positioned to shape the future of transportation. 

Road to Nowhere is a sharply rendered, compelling, and illuminating text that combines diffuse histories and complex processes into a clear narrative. Marx’s work helps us better understand the past and contemplate the kind of futures we might bring about. Yet perhaps Road to Nowhere ‘s most essential message is its insistence that, whatever the promise of new technologies, they will never serve anyone but the privileged—unless decisions about their use are made in a democratic manner. 

In the 1920s, the automotive industry had to make a concerted effort to remake society to prevent regulations that would have saved tens of millions of lives. In the 1970s, the industry once again had to fight to preserve the status quo after the oil shocks led to people to consider new forms of transportation and energy. In the crises of the modern day, as vast numbers of people increasingly contest the corporate abetting of the climate crisis, unaffordable rent, gas, and other necessities, and the unjust conditions of their working lives, we will once again encounter opportunities to reimagine our transportation system and, by extension, society as a whole.

Silicon Valley’s vision of the future is not the only future. Nor is the future predetermined; it is the result of our decisions. At this critical moment, Road to Nowhere diagnoses the worst failures of our public systems, and underscores that we cannot afford to make the wrong choices again. ♦

 

 

 


Matthew James Seidel is a musician and writer currently based in Rochester, NY. His essays and reviews have been featured in Liberated Texts, Ebb Magazine, Current Affairs, AlterNet, and The Millions. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewJSeidel.

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