THURSDAY ⚡ The Road to Nowhere ft. Paris Marx
On liberating transportation technology from the technology industry
The first time I visited LA, I was with Jasmine for spring break our freshman year of college. We were too young to rent a car and Ubers were expensive, so we took the bus everywhere instead—to downtown, to Santa Monica, to Koreatown—and picked a place to stay based on accessibility to public transit. Having grown up taking buses all over the Seattle area (shoutout King County Metro & Sound Transit), we never thought this was anything but normal, but my socal friends are always shocked by this story; they can’t imagine living for even a couple of days there without a car. And as I’ve spent more time in the area, it’s become more and more obvious why: the nearest coffeeshop might be a 10m walk, but do you really want to walk across a highway overpass to get there?
📖 The Road to Nowhere by Paris Marx
Our guest for this Thursday, July 14 is Paris Marx, the host of Tech Won’t Save Us, a weekly podcast that critiques the worldview of Silicon Valley. They’re also a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, after completing a Master’s in Geography at McGill University.
Join us next Thursday for a Q&A on the past & future of transportation, and how we might pick a better destination.
🚗 our take: all cars are bastards
By Jake Gaughan
In the early 20th Century, just as the mothers of fallen World War One soldiers were revered and respected, so too were the mothers of American pedestrians killed by automobiles given gold stars. In 1919, the names of those killed by cars were read aloud to school children across Detroit as bells across the city tolled in mourning. In 1923, Cincinnati held a ballot referendum on mechanically limiting the maximum speed of all automobiles in the city. Such acts of open confrontation with the personal automobile now seem alien in a country where over 42,000 people die by automobile crash each year without much notice, where vehicle pollution is killing both the planet and its residents, and where tech companies are allowed to beta test various forms of car crashes on unconsenting citizens. Yet in their new book, Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About the Future of Transportation, Paris Marx, host of podcast Tech Won’t Save Us, connects this history to the present day. In doing so, they create a necessary text that explains the political economy motivating transportation’s bleak status quo and even bleaker proposed future. Just as Ben Tarnoff’s Internet For the People does for the internet, Road to Nowhere explains how we got here in order to prompt us to go somewhere better.
By laying out a detailed material analysis of modern American transportation history, Marx highlights specific points in recent history where a course to a better present could have been charted but how capital often won out. After auto industry lobbying, Cincinnati’s 1923 speed-limiter referendum failed. Marx makes the convincing case that, despite their own advertising, Silicon Valley’s current transportation “disruptions” fit into this long history manipulating the public space for private gain. The continuation of this project was a choice by those writing the checks, not the providence of innovation.
The book includes a variety of examples of the rot at the heart of such tech industry transportation projects: one chapter focuses on the shortcomings of electric automobiles, another on the ravaging of labor rights and urbanity by ride-hailing services. Marx’s thorough research and clear writing does a wonderful job of displaying the deep connections between our current moment of transportation investment and its various historical precedents.
Marx’s storytelling is most effective in the thoughtful detailing of the killing of Elaine Herzberg. In 2018, Herzbeg was struck and killed by an Uber autonomous vehicle in Arizona as she crossed the street outside of a designated crosswalk. Post-accident analysis by the National Transportation Safety Bureau revealed that Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group—the group building the firm’s autonomous vehicles—knowingly cut corners on safety protocols in the interest of competition, failed to equip vehicles’ decision making with considerations for jaywalking pedestrians, and disabled the car’s out-of-the-box auto-braking system. The only Uber employee criminally charged for Herzberg’s killing was the safety operator in the car who took her eyes off of the road in the moments leading up to the crash. The detailing of Uber’s structural safety negligence leading up to Herzberg’s death is infuriating enough, but Marx aptly scopes out the culpability to greater structures. The road that Herzberg was on was a part of a spider web of freeways and large boulevards common in the United States. On these roads, pedestrian navigation is an afterthought, with a confusing mix of unprotected bikewalks, barely existent sidewalks, and confusingly marked paths. This built environment is the result of a century of urban policy and industry lobbying prioritizing automobiles over pedestrians and cyclists. Road to Nowhere is most moving here, as Marx connects how decades of American urban planning, car culture, and moving fast and breaking things collapsed onto a horrific spring night in Tempe. In doing so, Marx makes the case for transportation justice as a key social issue of our time.
Marx’s proposed solutions are rooted in the liberation of transportation technology from the technology industry. Just as the state paved the way for automobile dominance, Marx believes it must now pave the way for the car’s death. The book’s last chapter contains a truly optimistic future of a new urbanism rooted in social empowerment; better environments of walkable neighborhoods and safe pedestrian streets already exist around the world. Yet similar to other entries in the genre, Road to Nowhere often reminds its reader of how vested the interests of the status quo are and just how uphill the necessary work ahead will be.
Road to Nowhere is useful in understanding the analytical and material reasons why our car-centered status quo is bad. Yet a more convincing argument may be that the simple experience of living nearly anywhere in America without a car sucks. There is something incredibly soul crushing about walking across a six-lane road to a Starbucks drive-thru just to get a coffee. It doesn’t have to be this way. Just as our present was planned, so will our future. We just have to put it in drive.
Jake Gaughan is a software engineer. Find him on Twitter.
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on ~market conditions~ & venture capital (from Reboot friend Arjun Ramani in The Economist)
this short story is a Hugo finalist!! One of the best uses of alternative format I’ve seen
thinking about all the mental energy spent on thinkpieces about Elon x Twitter… ours included :|
gonna start using this line
bear market continues across all sectors
💝 closing note
(“Put it in drive”? In this economy?)
See you Thursday,