Tech Won’t Fix the Transport System
In a special episode to celebrate the release of host Paris Marx’s new book Road to Nowhere, Brian Merchant takes over as guest host to interview Paris about the book, the tech industry’s visions for transportation, and why they don’t solve our mobility challenges.
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Brian Merchant: Okay, Paris Marx, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Paris Marx: Thank you so much, Brian Merchant. It’s weird to be on the other side of it. So we’ll see how I do!
BM: I’ve got to put you in the hot seat here. It’s really fun to be able to do this. Thanks for asking me. I feel like been along for the ride with you for the show. It’s been great. So it’s fun to get to turn the tables on you here, and I’ve got some real zingers for you — so get ready.
PM: I totally appreciate it. You’ve obviously been a guest on the show more times than anyone else. So I figured if someone was going to interview me about my own book, it should obviously be Brian Merchant.
BM: Well, I am honored — let’s dig in! For those unaware, this book, “The Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About the Future of Transportation,” I may have just said that in the intro — I’m new at this, you’ll have to excuse me, listeners — it’s a great book! It’s a great survey of the various adventures and misadventures that Silicon Valley has had over the last decade plus. And I also really appreciated how it puts into historical context, many of its tendencies. It’s, to me a really interesting way to look at what you call the Silicon Valley mindset, which maybe at this point, there are better known instances of this, but I think mobility and transportation in what Silicon Valley has tried to do and most often failed to do in this space offers a clear and very tangible, visceral portrait of where it so often comes short, and where you know what it gets right, and what more often gets wrong. So I wanted to ask you the basic questions like dig in from the beginning, why this book right now? Why put the lens on Silicon Valley’s techno utopian neo-future, often revivalist transit dreams? Why now?
PM: It’s a good question. When I started writing the book, and when I pitched the book to my publisher, one of my concerns was I’d never written something that was over such a long period of time. By the time I finished writing, it would be out like a year later. I was like: Is this still going to be relevant by the time it hits the bookshelves? Are people still going to care about what Silicon Valley is proposing for transportation? Yes, very much, this is still like, an incredibly relevant conversation. I think it’s a good book for this moment, because we’re at the end of a decade, a decade and a half of the Silicon Valley thinking and engaging with transportation in this way, and trying to alter the transportation system and the way that we move around. Many of the proposals that they have made for that have utterly failed, as we can see from this vantage point. At the times that they were announced, it was easy to believe in what they were selling about electric cars and Tesla, what they were selling about ride-hailing services and Uber and Lyft, what they were selling about autonomous vehicles with Waymo, and these other companies that they were at it. Now we can see that time and time again, they have made these promises to us, and they have failed to follow through on that. So I think that we need a reckoning with that, both to understand what we need to fix our transportation system right now. But also, so we don’t fall for these things again, and again and again.
I would also say, if we’re thinking about the book in this moment, there are other reasons why it’s relevant. We’re at this pivotal moment where we need to decide what we’re going to do with our transportation system to address the climate impact of it, how it’s contributing to climate change, and the need to reckon with that, as well as the long standing issues with the transportation system. But as we’re seeing gas prices go through the roof, in North America in particular, but it affects many other parts of the world as well. The car dependency that we have been left with after over a century of promotion of the automobile is something that we also need to reckon with right now. Is the solution to those problems, and our reliance on gasoline altogether, is it just that we make the switch from these internal combustion vehicles to electric vehicles? Or do we think much more fundamentally about the transportation system that has been built up around that and tried to change the way that we move so we don’t need to be reliant on cars altogether?
BM: I think that’s all completely true. I would add, and we can just put a pin in it for now, but like this is another moment where the the world’s richest man has sort of reemerged on the scene as he attempts to buy Twitter. But Elon Musk, who is a recurring character in this book, is always popping up with one harebrained transit scheme or another. There’s a spectrum of harebrainededness that they occupy. Some he just kind of let slip blow in the wind and some he tries and fails and others he as we know, puts his resources and capital into, but at this moment when he is sort of, you know, is both sort of in command of the, of both sort of the cultural and imagination in terms of what a tech titan in the 2020s stands for, I think we are offered a real window into his thinking and why it’s important to understand it through this book.
But you were talking about cars and the dominance of cars, and you explore that a little bit in the first chapter. I think that’s a good place to start, because the behavior of a lot of these earliest automakers in pushing for the automobile as the dominant mode of transportation in the American city, I think it has a lot of lessons that hopefully you can peel apart for us a little bit. I’m just going to quote you to say which there was a moment when it was contested, right when, when it was uncertain whether or not the automobile was going to be the dominant way that we organize our urban areas in our cities, and roads and all that. Yet, they went out and you wrote, “The automobile provided few benefits to the average city-dweller, yet their children and family members were being killed in the street, their access was being revoked, and the benefits of this dangerous new technology were almost exclusively captured by the wealthiest residents.” So in spite of all of this, and we now know anybody who lives in North America, or most any other place in the world, the automobile won, how did that happen? That’s Part A and the question, Part B is what does that say about where we’re at now? So can you take us through the bullet points of how we got here?
PM: Absolutely. When I was approaching the book, it was so important to bring that historical perspective into it — criticizing what Silicon Valley has proposed in the past 10 years, and what has happened over that period was important. But I thought that it was going to help the book by bringing in the historical perspective as well, so we could look more broadly at these trends over a much longer period of time. Naturally, because we’re talking about transportation, especially in the North American context because that’s what I’m most familiar with, it kind of had to start with the car; we had to look at the car. Because if we’re talking about disruption in the way that these tech companies that Silicon Valley has sold us in the past decade or so, the car really was this technology that disrupted the American city, but the city more broadly and the transportation system. Because early on, before the car emerged, people were reliant on walking, on cycling, on horse and buggy or whatever you want to call it, street carriages, also street cars. The city and the street looked much different than they do today because the automobile was not there, and it was not reoriented toward it. And I think that can be a bit difficult to imagine and think about when the car has been so normalized today.
So the car emerges — it’s very much a luxury product. It’s something that a small number of people own and it’s a wealthy piece of the population who are able to do that. The car gives them certain benefits, it allows them to go faster than other people, and it allows them to go the places that might be more difficult for regular city-dwellers to reach. But because that is very different from what is happening on the street at the time where things are moving pretty slow that the street is like a shared space between all these different modes of transportation. There’s no such thing as jaywalking, people are just walking across the street because that’s a normal thing to do. Well the car enters and really changes that because it makes it much more dangerous for people to be in the street in that way. Because it starts to kill a lot of people, in particular children and young women. Then that starts a debate around whether this is what people want to see on their streets, whether the automobile should be welcomed on the streets, or whether it is changing too much, whether it’s too dangerous. So naturally, there are people within cities who push back against this who don’t want to see the automobile takeover, who want to see them restricted, not go very fast, to fit within the existing status quo of how transportation worked. But there was a very powerful industry behind the automobile that did not want that, that wanted the automobile to be entrenched, that wanted to sell a lot of automobiles to a lot of people.
Most importantly, there were a lot of other commercial interests who lined up behind it, because it was not just the auto companies making these automobiles. It was all the other companies that were supplying the parts to build them; it was the oil companies who were providing the product that would power all these vehicles; it was the construction and real estate industries; the developers who were building out all the roads, and later the highways and suburbs that people would go to live in that would remake the city for the automobile. And really, labor got behind this as well, because that also created jobs and in particular, manufacturing union jobs. So less thinking about the larger impacts of auto mobility, and more, this is providing good jobs, of course, we’re going to embrace this. So what happens is that the automobile gets entrenched, because there are so many companies, so many industries that are going to benefit from making that happen. So then, if we twist that to today, if we think about the push to change the way that we move now, who is going to benefit from that, right? If we think about a public transportation system, what companies are really benefiting from that? It’s much fewer, there’s much less profit that is generated from a collective transportation system like that. And so when we see these tech companies enter into it, they’re bringing their particular business models that they have developed in the tech sector to the automobile, to the way that transportation moves. And their solution is not to move away from this status quo that has been very popular, but to add new technologies to it, that allow them to extract value and profit from it without really disrupting what already exists.
BM: It’s hard to kind of imagine a more sort of violent and visceral example of a technology, a consumer technology arriving on the scene. It’s literally plowing through children and women; it’s literally killing people; it’s literally leaving bodies in the street. It seems that that’s something that might even be beyond the pale for Silicon Valley today — we still have… and Uber, famously, has an autopilot has led to crashes and so forth. But I’m wondering if, in your research, there was any particularly effective, like you said, neighborhood groups, and different associations banded together to try to contest the power of the automobile. There were some successes and some limited capacities you get decades later down the road, Jane Jacobs, and Ralph Nader, where we were able to pump the brakes occasionally, but still end up serving the car. So I’m wondering if there’s anything as we go forward in the conversation that we can keep in mind about the tactics used early on that was sort of successful that really did sort of put a needle in the automakers eyes early on?
PM: I think there are two pieces of this. And first of all, some of the history that I talked about early on in the book is really inspired by the work of historian Peter Norton, who wrote this fantastic book about that early period of the automobile in the American city in particular, but also other academics and people who I’m citing, but his work is really essential there. What he describes is really that these people who are forming organizations to push back against the automobile by holding funeral parades for children who have died to really show how much opposition there is to this, but also how bad it is, ringing the bells in fire halls and churches when people die on the streets. So people know that this is happening, you can’t deny it. They were putting up statues to people who had died to recognize it, making really visceral posters that call the the automobile the “Modern Moloch,” or that show a little girl asking her Mom like where daddy is because daddy’s been killed by an automobile. All of these examples to really kind of draw out the emotions of people when they’re thinking about auto mobility.
Then later, as you’re saying, after World War Two, when there’s greater push to entrench the automobile in both the American city but also the European city. You also see more examples of this. As you were saying, Jane Jacobs is really key to pushing back against highways. She wasn’t the only one, but helping this movement gain attention, particularly in New York City and in Toronto, and ultimately defeating in New York City. And then Ralph Nader are trying to push for safety standards for vehicles. I say in the book that I think that these were important events, important developments to make people think about the automobile in an in another way. But ultimately, they weren’t pushing back against the whole of automobility. Right, just one kind of feature of it, which I think we need to approach it from a more totalizing perspective. But then I think Europe is also very instructive. Like in the 1970s, when they have these oil shocks when the prices of oil are going through the roof. As you know, we’re seeing today once again, there are these movements in some countries to embrace cycling to push back against the attempt to remake the cities for automobiles.
One of the things that people forget is that, when you think of Amsterdam or like Copenhagen today, which are so associated with the bicycle, back in that period in the 1970s, a lot of buildings were being torn down for roads, a lot of public squares were being turned into parking spaces. It was like what we know from the American cities and North American cities — and people pushed back against that. That was how they really got these kind of bicycle oriented cities. And in particular, like, there’s one group that’s name is just so striking, which is “Stop the Child Murder in the Netherlands.” And so again, it’s really drawing on this visceral, emotional response in the early American city, to try to get people on side to make these changes to the city and to push the automobile out once again.
BM: It’s striking, those are those are striking tactics. But what’s maybe equally striking, after a century or so of normalization, is that it’s a little dissonant to even consider that we could ever become accustomed to such a reality. And I always sort of balk — I live in Los Angeles, the world capital of the automobile. Every news program goes through the traffic crash, but they never mention any more details where it’s like: “Oh, blocked up on I-5, something’s going on there, car on the side of the road.” But each and every instance, I’m always asking, what percentage of these instances is that it’s just somebody just died? And now it’s a problem because somebody else has to try to get to work or is late for a meeting or something. We’ve completely extricated that element of what’s actually happening, this daily carnage. I can hear the I-10, from my house. And maybe monthly, maybe more frequently than that because I’m tuning it out, I hear a violent crash. I think it speaks to how normalized this has become, and how it maybe it would be worth exploring the reintroduction of some of those tactics.
Because as you said, I think you mentioned in the book as well, how even more recently there have been cities that have opened up spaces to car-free zones in Spain, and so on. But I think we’re going to save the solution part to the end. And I want to connect this lineage of the car to the modern day, Silicon Valley movement; they’re pulling on a lot of these same impulses, where they’re aligning a bunch of different interests. They have maybe historical levels of capital that they can now pour into these things. And I think another thing that’s interesting about your book is, as you said, you reach back to that history. We see that so many of these ideas, whether it’s Uber or a self-driving car or an electric car, each and every one of them is like a 100 years old. It’s like the Silicon Valley’s great innovations are just like: Well, maybe we should try that thing that flopped in the 1910s.
PM: I think it’s like instructive to me as well — when I heard first heard about like the example of Douglas Engelbart’s show in what was the 60s I think, where he’s showing off all these different technologies associated with the computer. The original mouse is there and something that is similar to Google Talks, a collaborative thing like that. And then you think about how so many of the aspects of computing and software today are sold to us as so novel, and so new. And then you see, like, how long these ideas of like, what what computing should be have existed. And I feel like going back and looking at the history of transportation, it was similar, looking back and seeing how they were proposing autonomous vehicles in the 1920s. And how they were supposed to be like only a couple decades away and stuff and how electric cars were back in the 1890s. And now it’s something that we are adopting today. And how you know, as you mentioned, like Uber is really just a taxi service that offers you a new way to hail the taxi instead of instead of calling in. And so none of these things are really new. It’s just adding a new layer onto them.
BM: So let’s take a second and let’s go through them. So I think there are a few, I guess you could call them categories of Silicon Valley’s transit exploits here. There’s Uber, as you mentioned, which is sort of its app-based transit service. And there’s its forays into the electric car, probably best exemplified by Tesla. And there’s this great self-driving car failure, which has been going on for a decade. And what else do you sort of view? What do these categories kind of have in common? What am I missing here? And what what sort of common threads do they all have? Often, it’s like the same company that’s pursuing these ideas; Uber and Google have been in bed together. And Google has tried to do self driving cars, and so has Uber, so what’s the common thread?
PM: I think maybe a little example, a historical example, to draw this together, is related to Uber. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick used to make a lot of calls back to the Jitneys, which he would always talk about were like the early Uber, that were defeated. And if they weren’t defeated, we would have had Uber so much longer ago, and we would have had this very different history of transportation. It’s just so blatantly false — it’s hilarious when you actually look into the details of it. The jitneys are these early taxi cabs that emerge after an economic downturn like Uber did, and that take advantage of the fact that these drivers are looking for an income and don’t have many places to turn to them. It’s very early in the history of automobility. So they get these early Ford Model-T’s with running boards to drive people around the cities, and they’re kind of like a mix of a tax and an omnibus or a bus at the time. They usually run a set route, you usually pay, I think, a nickel or something to take your ride with it. And they get regulated out of existence, essentially. Travis Kalanick used to talk about this as though it was like the early streetcar bosses ensured that this entrepreneurial force was pushed off the streets. And it was this terrible development. And we can’t allow Uber to be regulated in this way. It works really well for him.
But actually, what happened in that time is that these were just individual people who were offering these services, there wasn’t some overarching company. And the issue with them was that most of them were operating around at cost; people weren’t really making much money with them. Because there was so much competition, people were even losing money. And the problem was that the streetcars which were existing at the time were offering a lot of benefits because they did pay taxes, they had to ensure that the streets were paved and well-kept right up to the sidewalk. Sometimes they had to provide street lighting, there were all these things in the contract that had to be provided. And so when they started to lose business, because of these jitneys that not only created problems for the streetcar companies, which at the time would have been private, but also created problems for the city. And the jitneys didn’t have like an organization to push for their rights and to lobby for their rights. And so it was easy then for the city government to pass regulations and say: Look, you need to pay taxes as well, and contribute to the city and ensure that these roads are being well kept. And they weren’t able to do that, because they didn’t have the margins. And they certainly didn’t have the money from some really wealthy investors to keep losing money while offering their services for a long time.
And so, Travis Kalanick used to say that this was an example of how these really powerful interests defeated these like upstarts, and if that hadn’t happened, we would have had a shared history of mobility, instead of this personal ownership of the automobile. But that makes no sense. Because if theoretically this had been allowed to happen, and if these had existed, there’s no benefit to the automaker for that future — the personal ownership of the automobile was far better. And so if we believe what Travis Kalanick is saying, by defeating the jitney, we should have had this amazing streetcar future of transportation, but we didn’t, because that still had to be defeated for the automobile to take over. For Uber to prosper in the way that it has and to avoid regulation, the key difference with the jitneys is that it controlled all of these services all around the world. It had this huge lobbying arm and had all of this money to undercut these other services. And so it could in the same way, or in a similar way that the automobile lobby had these interests behind it, so it could push for its vision of transportation to be realized. Uber not only had this war chest from venture capitalists, but it also had support from libertarian organizations that wanted to see broad deregulation of the taxi industry. And so it had the resources to actually push this on to the rest of us, even if it wasn’t serving workers, even if it wasn’t serving the cities, even if it wasn’t broadly serving the public and just like a narrow class of users that were people like Travis Kalanick. And so I don’t know if that fully answers your questions around the different categories. But I think it’s an interesting comparison and bringing that historical piece.
BM: It’s a great point. It’s funny, because in a lot of ways, the ways that they are similar are the ones that you would not want; they’re unsafe, they’re unregulated, people are just kind of cramming into these vehicles. I did a piece on the jitneys a while back, I remember a little bit of if and they would get in crashes and you were kind of on your own. And the way that what they didn’t have was, as you said, was was Uber’s great centralization — Uber had an app that could be accessed from anywhere. Uber has and continues to siphon a percentage of the profits off. It’s not for the little guy at all. It’s organized to funnel profits to the C-Suite. These jitneys were completely informal — I think they had they eventually formed into little cartels where they would compete to their advantage. But it is a great point to say how ridiculous it is to say like the future should be an unregulated mob of informal vehicles that patrol the streets at their whim. It speaks to the recklessness and carelessness, which undergirds the the Silicon Valley mindset, which I think we should define here also.
Because if we’re moving through the book a little bit, then actually, I think it’s chapter two that really goes into why are all of these mobility dreams of a similar stripe. Why do they keep having the same limitations and why are they have the same texture? You define this and pull from Fred Turner — it’s been nice to see his work have a resurgence and his work connecting with Stuart Brand and countercultural types to the cyber culture. But I think it’s interesting the way that you position it with regards to transit in particular. So what is the Silicon Valley mindset as you define it? We could talk about Elon Musk, we could not talk about Elon Musk, he seems to sort of embody a lot of this. I know he’s one of your faves, he’s one of your big boys. So what is this mindset? How is it propelling the techno utopian dreams of transportation?
PM: Just briefly on Musk before I answer your larger question, I got a laugh recently. Leo Hollis, who’s an editor at Verso Books, who was the editor of my book, sent out a newsletter recently and it’s kind of dubbed me as the left leaning Musk-ologist. And I was like, do I accept this term? Is this positive? But I think it’s very kind, so I’ll accept it.
BM: We could put that under your title on the cover of the book there.
PM: We should, maybe the paperback! So the broader question on the Silicon Valley approach and what that means for transportation. I think there are many different ways to look at it. As you said, Fred Turner did great work on this, Richard Barbrook, the Californian ideology, I think is really important to understanding this approach. I think I would say two different things. When we look at Silicon Valley’s general approach to problems, it’s very much focused on how can technology solve this problem, technology deployed within the free market? And so you’re not really looking at what are the political angles of this, what caused this problem in the first place from a political and social perspective. It’s how does this problem exists today and how can we imagine a technology that would potentially rectify this problem without dealing with the broader, connections and social issues that surround the problem. that created the problem in the first place. The idea is that we just need some better technology, and this can be solved. And I think time and time again, we see that the technology does not actually solve the problems. In some ways, the people who develop these technologies who are idealistic maybe, maybe sometimes naive as well originally imagined. And we can see that with transportation as well.
But I think that there’s another piece of this too, which is something that Jarrett Walker talks about, which is elite projection, this idea that the people coming up with these ideas are in these really privileged places in society. Many of them come from wealth, many of them are white men who have a particular experience of the world. And so the ideas that they come up with the solutions to problems that they come up with, are shaped by their experience of the world and how they have lived. And so when we think about transportation, then and we can apply this to many different areas. Naturally, that is going to affect the way that they think about how we solve our transportation problems — how do we fix the system that we’ve created. And so for someone like Elon Musk, who looks at the transportation system, it’s not: Oh wow, the car sucks! Maybe we shouldn’t have this because it’s killing a lot of people. It’s causing all of these environmental issues, people are stuck in traffic all the time, it’s destroyed our communities by creating the suburban mess. Rather, it’s much more narrow, because he likes the car. He doesn’t want to be around strangers, as he says who could possibly be serial killers on transit. He wants to be in his car away from everyone else. But he doesn’t want to waste his time being stuck in traffic. And this was the original promise of the automobile all the way back in like the 1910s and 20s. That by buying this thing you can escape from, you can go as fast as you want, you can go where you want. You don’t need to be stuck with all of these people. But as the automobile becomes this mass consumer product, you can’t escape the traffic because there’s a geometry of it doesn’t make sense, and that the rich driver is right next to the poor driver and you just can’t escape.
So when these rich people look at transportation, with Elon Musk it’s how do I get out of traffic? The Boring Company is one solution to that — tunnels under the ground, we’d have a really naive solution. And of course, the precursor to that was an extra level on top of highways that gets forgotten by many people today. Alyssa Walker has done some great work on this over at Curbed. But also, the autonomous vehicles, which are supposed to be a way to kind of rationalize traffic so that automobiles work better together and you won’t be stuck in traffic anymore. Or Travis Kalanick — the kind of inciting moment behind Uber, the creation of that company is that it sucks to get a black car or a taxi in San Francisco. So we need a solution to that very narrow problem, and then to sell it as something that is going to help so many more people. And so those are the really the key points, right technology can solve these problems without dealing with the politics and the the social aspects of it. But also, the solution to these problems come from a particular position in society that sees the problems in a very narrow way and doesn’t recognize the full extent of them, but will still sell those very narrow solutions as solving the problem for everybody.
BM: Would you include in that definition that the technology, not only must be new technology in and of itself, but would it have to be consumer facing technology? The ongoing joke is that Silicon Valley keeps reinventing the bus like: Oh, great, what if we got an electric transport vehicle that made multiple stops, while people could look at… It’s the bus again. Is it limited to certain kinds of technologies? And if so, what are those constraints?
PM: It’s really interesting because of the way that these technologies are deployed. We could look at the electric car in a different way. It’s changing the way that the car is propelled. But once again, electric cars had been around for over a century, it’s just popularizing them and using new battery technologies that have been developed. But I think when we look at these more popular tech solutions to transportation, and the ones that have been more associated with Silicon Valley, in particular, ride hailing autonomous vehicles, micro mobility services, getting a scooter or a dockless bike through your phone, it’s all about changing the way that we access things that already exist. Basically you just add a layer of technology in between that is controlled by one of these major companies. And so with ride hailing, it’s still a taxi service. So you change some of the fundamentals in the regulation. So you know, the driver isn’t driving one of these cars in a fleet, and no longer has regulations on fares and the number of drivers that can be on the road. But the real change on the consumer side is you’re just clicking a button on an app, instead of calling for a taxi to come get you or whatever. Autonomous vehicles, it’s similar, it’s the car. It’s like the extension of ride hailing, because you want to get rid of the human driver, because that’s a an unacceptable labor cost or whatever. And so it’s ride hailing, but with this extra layer of technology on top of it to drive the car. And of course, as we know, the original thinking of the geniuses behind autonomous vehicles was that this is going to be like pretty easy to solve, we’d have it sorted in a few years. And then computers could drive cars everywhere. And what we’ve seen over a decade later is that it didn’t work out like that at all. And even the industry admits it now.
And then when we look at the micromobility services, this is one of the most perplexing ones to me, and how people even really fell for it. So we already had these dockless bikes and these dockless scooters; we already had existing docked bike systems in many cities that like worked pretty well. The business model behind these dock bike was —
BM: — There’s no app that unlocked them, Paris. You do extract a rent from them.
PM: It’s just the transformation of the model, so that the tech company is in between your interaction with this bike or scooter. It’s not even thinking about whether this is what’s best to promote active mobility and cycling. It’s what is best for a tech company to get some sort of cut and get some interaction with it, get some sort of data out of it. Because if we were really thinking about what would promote cycling and getting people out of cars in this way, it wouldn’t be about turning bikes and scooters into a rentier service that’s really expensive if you use it frequently. But rather, just ensuring like it’s really easy and cheap for people to own a bike and use a bike and park their bike when they’re taking it out and stuff. I think we could extend this even further and look at how Apple was trying to put CarPlay in all the cars and expand the screens on that, like, there are all these these elements to it. But it’s really adding this kind of digital technology internet enabled layer to all of these aspects of transportation, so they can extract rents and data from it. And that’s kind of their business model.
BM: I think they’re not insignificant. It would be somebody should to try to do a study of every major well-heeled startup that has an app and see what percentage are just basically a rentier business. That’s the vast majority it seems are. You can kind of see the limits of that a little bit because with Bird people were like: Well, why am I paying for that? I people I know a lot of people who just kind of like: Okay, if I take a Bird scooter 10 times, I might as well just have my own scooter, right? It’s cheap enough, then you’re eating into that. And it also just speaks to the dearth of imagination that you see time and again when Silicon Valley enters the arena of transit. Self-driving cars, I would love to see someone, again make like a timeline of every promise that it was going to be here in the next few years starting with Google and (Sergey) Brin and just look at where we are now, nowhere near as you said. It seems like they’ve kind of accepted that. We aren’t going to be getting them anytime soon. But I wonder if if you could talk a little bit about — it’s silly, and we can laugh about it — but as you point out in the book, there’s a real detriment to this kind of thinking and the fact that this is going to be a transportation solution. And it’s kind of limped on attracting new investment and tried by different competitors for nearly 10 years. What do we lose when Silicon Valley circles its wagons around one of these shitty transit ideas, and keeps beating on with it even even when it looks pretty clear to everyone else that this isn’t going to happen?**
PM: I think the real issue there is distraction. People want to believe, and we’ve been sold this for well over a decade now, that the tech industry is delivering progress, it’s delivering the future. And so if they say that this is the future of transportation, we should believe that that’s what it’s going to be. That’s what they’re going to deliver. And this is something that we should want. And the issue there is that not only do they fail to deliver, as we’ve been talking about on what they actually promise, but then they don’t actually solve the real transportation problems that affect most people, people who are waiting for a bus and it’s not coming, people who are stuck in traffic and need to get where they want to go, people who are paying outrageous costs for gasoline. Really just to own a car altogether, that’s incredibly expensive actually to rely on a car and have to pay all the costs of that for someone who is not earning very much money, but has to because of the construction of their city. And so the issue here is that we have these companies making these promises about how they are going to solve car ownership and traffic and the carbon emissions of transportation and all of these things, then they don’t deliver on it. And because we have been distracted for a decade by these promises, it seeps the desire to act from the political leaders or gives them a reason not to.
We even see it utilized in some campaigns for better transit. In the United States, in Nashville, the Koch brothers used the prospect of autonomous vehicles to push back against a ballot measure for better transit funding. I’m sure that has happened in many more places. And in Elon Musk’s first biography, his biographer Ashlee Vance wrote that Elon Musk told him that the whole idea behind the Hyperloop and why he put it out in that moment was to try to stymie or defeat California’s proposed high-speed rail system. We should think a bit deeper about that — this is an automaker who wants people to buy automobiles, and is trying to defeat train infrastructure. Even with the Boring Company, it’s like, don’t extend the subway or don’t make the buses better, because I’m gonna make these tunnels where we can just all drive our cars and for a bit he even said he would have some form of individualized public transportation in it. So those are many examples just to come back to the point of your question, which is that it distracts people from the real solutions that can actually fix these transportation problems by making people think that these new technologies and these tech solutions pushed by Silicon Valley are going to deliver things that they don’t deliver, and that then leave people stuck in traffic that leave people dealing with these high costs for automobiles that don’t solve the climate problem of our transportation system, and all these other issues.
BM: That’s true. And I think maybe we even underestimate the effect that that has had over the last 10 years. Because, transit policy is notoriously something that not a whole lot of people have the have the stomach to wade into or the time to wade into. And so even sometimes just being able to kind of wave it off and say: Oh, we’re trying this thing now is is enough to sort of disrupt a coalition that may be forming around an alternative solution. And I’m thinking of Uber to where Uber explicitly pitched itself as a way to reduce congestion, right, like in cities like New York, where is notoriously awful traffic congestion, and we find out you know, 10 years down the road that be closer to the opposite. It’s just inspired more people to take Ubers instead of more climate friendly transit, like like the subway, and you know, I feel like the trend you were talking about earlier, helped decrease subway ridership and all these other things. So I do think that really, as time goes on, it’s what another great service your book does by laying this all out beat by beat by beat case by case that, you know, we really had a lost decade or two in terms of transit policy, where we were distracted by all these bells and whistles. And I feel a little foolish in hindsight, with some of them. I mean, again, it rains, it seems to, you know, run the gamut. Because believing that self driving cars were going to solve anything it looks looks foolish. Now, the scooters are silly, the Boring Company seemed like a joke from the beginning.
On the other end of the spectrum, you do have a Tesla, which maybe you could kind of make the case that it’s kind of like an iPhone of the cars, it has some vague futurity around it, it’s electric. And we also can’t understate how alluring that was. I would love to hear you talk a little bit about, again, we keep sort of running up into Musk here and maybe we should finally ito zero in because he really is in a lot of ways sort of like the avatar figure for you know, the Silicon Valley Transit guru wanna be and he got his start buying an electric car, there’s the PayPal backstory, but he’s bought, you know, an electric car company. At around the same time, as you mentioned that there were the there is like a real sort of awakening and consciousness among sort of American liberals to climate change. And sort of the latter half of the aughts, there was Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth.” And there’s these documentaries of “Who Killed the Electric Car” and “Who Killed the Electric Car Part Two: Revenge of the Electric Car” so that I don’t remember exactly, you’ll have to correct me. So into this climate, you write in your book about how Elon Musk takes advantage of these headwinds. Can you talk a little bit now about what was going on there? How Elon Musk really sort of built his mythology and the extent to which it was sort of strategic from the beginning?
PM: I’ll put my Musk-ologist hat on and get into this part of the conversation. I think it’s fascinating what’s happening in that period. I’m pretty sure I say it in the book, and I’m sure I’ve written it elsewhere before, but I’m not sure how I feel about this narrative that Elon Musk has done a lot to drive the electric vehicle. He’s certainly interested in the electric vehicle. But I feel like Elon Musk is more of a person who happened to come along, was in the right place at the right time, there were these other inventors, innovators, whatever you want to call them, who had already founded this electric car company, had come up with the idea, had developed like the core technology. And so he comes and puts his money into it. And then rebrands himself as the Tesla guy, as he even says, He’s the founder of the company, and then later has the settle with the guys who actually founded it. And they say, he can call himself a co-founder at that point. In that moment, he is taking on this electric car company and saying he’s going to save the climate. And then he’s also investing in SpaceX starting that up with his PayPal money, as he said, and saying he’s going to take us to Mars.
This is happening in a moment where it’s a very neoliberal moment. I think that there’s not a lot of hope in the future, especially as we hit around 2008 and the recession. Elon Musk gets compared to Ironman. The portrayal of Ironman by Robert Downey Jr. is apparently inspired by Elon Musk, which I think that can say quite a bit about Elon Musk actually, even though it was presented as a very positive thing at the time. But he really takes advantage of this desire among the public but also among the media for someone who is presenting the future who’s thinking about the future who is driving us forward, right, and he becomes the avatar for that there’s a very kind of mutual relationship going on between the media and Elon Musk, the media is getting someone that they can kind of pump up as the avatar of the future while Elon Musk is getting this profile. And that gives him access to funding to people to everything that he needs to ensure that these companies keep operating and really to escape accountability for you know, his negative actions especially as we’ve been seeing in recent years.
BM: I have to I have to come clean real quick here Paris because I was part of the problem. In my first job as a as a journalist, I was a blogger for the Discovery Channels, which had bought all these green properties. Again, for anyone who wasn’t old enough to remember those those days, environmentalism entered the scene in a real neoliberal way where there was an Al Gore documentary that was nominated for an Oscar. Suddenly, everybody was talking about this. The Discovery Channel bought a whole cable channel, and it was going to be a parallel running one called Planet Green. One of my first jobs was to blog for that and its properties. And Elon Musk was like a mascot over there. This was the kind of environmentalism that was very much in vogue at the time. I remember I was sent to the New York premiere of that documentary in which he is very much lionized as laying it all on the line. And in hindsight, he was given so much credit for all of this; he had this plan to bring down the cost of electric cars, where he’s going to introduce the Roadster that was like a fancy sports car. And then next was like the Model S. And so you slowly bring electric cars to the masses, and people were like: This is so great. Meanwhile, as you mentioned in the book, Tesla gets heavily subsidized.
It’s hard for someone who wasn’t there to overstate how heroic he seemed to a certain kind of liberal. I don’t remember having a strong opinion about it one way or another. But certainly for my colleagues, Elon Musk could do no wrong. And it wasn’t until sort of people’s politics got a little more progressive in general. And he started running into the labor issues in his plants that started to arise that the landscape seem to change. But whatever he did, if it was right place, right time, as you said, or he recognized it on some intuitive level, that he had this opportunity. I think a lot of his mystique to this day is generated from the credit that he got. He got investment, he got in the room with Barack Obama, he’s still just like a tech company. He’s still got some of that halo. I totally stepped on the point you were about to make there. Because I want to know now what do we do about this? Do you think it’s clear to most people now that he’s kind of full of shit a lot of the time? Obviously, he has his haters, but he also has this insane fan base that is unlike any other sort of cult of personality around a billionaire. Jeff Bezos doesn’t have that at all. It’s a unique thing. And what does that say about other titans who try to enter the Silicon Valley Transit sphere?
PM: I think that his halo kind of comes out of that moment — not to say that you’re a bad person or anything. That’s not my goal.
BM: No, I thought about it. I wrote some blogs or whatever but I wasn’t influential enough to make any real difference. It was just reflective of where he was at. It was really that he won the goodwill.
PM: That was a whole thing at the moment, with the Electro tech and these other kind of green blogs that were showing up at that time. And that were very much, especially in lthe independent blogosphere, that would have been separate from Discovery Channel, that were very much like reliant on Tesla, because Tesla had an affiliate program where they could make a lot of money if their readers went ahead and bought Teslas. So that created the incentive for a whole range of independent media to praise Elon Musk and Tesla. And then that filters out into the broader media as this gets built up. So I think is his halo very much comes out of that moment. And that’s why it’s so distinct from people like Jeff Bezos. Jeff Bezos didn’t have that same sort of thing going on for him. And I think you’ve seen him kind of recognize it recently, how he needs that for Blue Origin to get the kinds of subsidies that SpaceX has been getting from NASA and the Defense Department and stuff like that for their rocket businesses. And that’s why he’s pivoted to start doing these public rocket launches with celebrities and stuff like that. So people get like a better goodwill toward him and the rocket company.
I think it can seem like maybe electric cars aren’t a natural fit for a book that is going after Silicon Valley and transportation. But I think it’s really key because Elon Musk is so central to it. And he really treats it as though he is bringing the Silicon Valley model and mindset to the automotive industry — this move fast and break things approach to innovation and creating a product and the type of marketing that happens around it. He’s very much creating like a car for tech people, because he’s adding these tech features to it. He’s adding these big touchscreen displays that make it seem futuristic, even if they don’t last very long, and it causes all these quality issues with the cars. It’s a whole thing around Tesla and the electric vehicles. But I think that it’s really instructive because, as you were saying, he is a figure that represents neoliberal environmentalism. At this time that Al Gore is telling us that we just need to change our lightbulbs and what have you, and these environmental documentaries are telling us that if we buy electric cars, we can save the climate and also stop wars for foreign oil in Iraq, because that was that whole moment as well, Elon Musk really presented an image that really worked. And that sold what the people in power wanted to be sold. And he certainly benefited from that as well.
So if we think about what we need to do to respond to that, I think we need to think more critically about what is being proposed. The electric car, yes, is good. In some ways, it will be essential to addressing the climate problem of transportation. But if, as Elon Musk wants us to believe, we need to replace every car that’s powered by gas, or diesel today with an electric vehicle that’s powered by batteries, that’s just not going to work out, that’s not going to be sustainable. Because the part of the electric vehicle that gets kind of hidden in a lot of the discourse around the electric car, whether that’s coming from Elon Musk, or increasingly, from the government, other automakers, mining companies, is that there’s a really dirty supply chain that goes into this. And even though the life scale emissions of the electric vehicle tends to be less than a gas or diesel powered vehicle, there’s still a huge environmental footprint that comes out of that, that gets ignored in the language of zero emissions. And I think we need to pay more attention to that if we are actually serious about addressing once again, as I’ve been saying, the real problems that the car created, rather than just the ones that are more convenient to create the narrative for a new kind of industry or product.
BM: Ultimately, the electric car, cars are very expensive and very lucrative products. You’re really not moving the needle that much, it’s a different kind of product that you can buy. The supply chain is incredibly problematic. And it also feeds into all these other issues that you address in the book. And I think now’s a good time to note that as you point out, we, you know, we are still intensely reliant on the automobile; it has sort of come to dominate our transit life. You can’t even compare it to anything else. If you live in a European city, or a handful of cities in in North America and other places in Asia, maybe you can get around without an automobile. But for a lot of the people in the in the in the modern world, the car is just an intractable part of life. So we are at a point where, as bleak as things are, we’re spending more time than ever, in our automobiles, like this cyber truck is now sort of the premier automobile, luxury tech product. And it just looks like something out of Road Warrior, a slightly more luxurious Road Warrior. And yet people are excited about this. I mean, to be fair, people are equally enraged and are calling it out to so how do we respond to this moment where like a cyber truck is coming out from some of the richest man in the world is presenting the public a cyber truck? How do we get away from that? You know, at this moment, where traffic fatalities, pedestrian fatalities, cyclist fatalities are all inching up in this sort of world of automobile dominated carnage, how do we add we put the brakes on it? How do we get off the road to nowhere?
PM: It’s an essential question and really key if we think about how we’re going to build a better transportation system for everybody. And so I think the first step of that is to stop really being distracted by what Silicon Valley is selling us as the future of transportation. And I think that there’s a few pieces of that. I think we need the media to be a bit more skeptical of what they’re presenting to us from these companies, instead of just repeating what they tell us and accepting that as fact, rather than really challenging it. And I think we have seen a bit more of that in recent years, which is really positive. But there is still the side of it where this company said this today. And you know, we’re just going to report that as though that is something people should know. And then I think the other part of that is on the side of regulators to really be stepping in much earlier to assess these claims that the companies are making.
We’ve see, as you mentioned earlier with autopilot, which is Tesla’s purportedly assisted driving system, has been having a lot of crashes and killing its drivers. Even as Elon Musk keeps saying that it’s safer than human driving, even though there’s no actual real evidence of that. And we are finally seeing in the United States, the regulators starting to investigate it and starting to look into it, which is really positive. But I’d say it’s kind of late, it should have happened much earlier. I think there needs to be a bit more skepticism from the public as well. And certainly, I think I’m preaching to the audience on this podcast, certainly who would be feeling that way. But then I think we also need to think about the kind of transportation system that we actually want to build the kind of transportation system that actually addresses these problems of the lack of access to mobility that a lot of people have the high cost of mobility and transportation for a lot of people, the many problems that auto dependence has created. Then obviously, the climate problem that has emerged out of the kind of transportation system that we’ve created. And so my argument would be not that we need to take all the technology out of it, because let’s be real buses are technology, bikes are technology, there will even be roles for digital technology and planning such a system.
But I think one of the contributions of the book, by looking back at the history of automobility, and just showing the way that that was intentionally created by public investment, by a real commitment by the government to actually remake the shape of society, the shape of cities, the shape of the transportation system, to serve the interests of these auto companies and the other companies that were benefiting from it, we need to learn from that, and say that instead of just tweaking the types of automobiles that are on the road, we need to think much more fundamentally about the type of infrastructure that we have, the type of communities that we have, and how government policy and government investment is shaping those things, right, because they can be reoriented towards something else if the commitment is actually there. And so what that would look like I would argue, a much greater focus on better transit services, instead of individualized solutions, as Elon Musk would say, much better cycling infrastructure so that people can feel safe when they’re riding their bikes, so that there’s places for people to park their bikes, when they need to drop them off and go somewhere and not fear that they’re going to be stolen. And even more walkable communities.
The key to that, because this isn’t just about transportation, is that the actual communities themselves will need to change to reorient around that. And as we’ve seen, especially in the past few years, but even more broadly than that, when you start to make those changes that make cities more livable, that make communities more livable, the cost of living in them tends to go up. And so even, a private housing system is really going against these goals of equity, that we should be striving for these goals of better communities. And so it really forces us to have this broader kind of reconsideration of the society that we’ve built, how transportation fits in it, but also how we change these broader structures to create a better world and a better city and a better transportation system and better technology, too.
BM: That’s probably a great place to leave it. I think that the book does a really admirable job of painting a total picture of how it is really that Silicon Valley mindset, how it is this misplaced faith in technology that animates all of these very shallow solutions. And it has over the years, whether it’s now or in the early 1900s. It’s, if you have a bad solution, it’s going to continue to be a bad solution. No matter no matter how much technology you pack into it. There do need to be social solutions to these things. And I would just recommend everybody check out this book, anybody that is still skeptical that Silicon Valley has the best vector for accomplishing anything. I think it’s just such a fruitful arena to look at how just in transportation, it comes up short time and time again and just take note of all of the different areas that you document, Paris. Just give this book a good read. Also, you’ll find yourself shaking your head a lot. By peeling away all of these misbegotten utopian and sub-utopian dreams, you can really see what’s needed, you’re left with a picture of what we have to do and what we can do. Once that clutter is out of the way, it’s pretty simple — pedestrian areas, more bike lanes, like you said, and so thanks for writing this book. Thanks for having me on here. I’ll give you the last word.
PM: No, thanks so much for taking the time to read the book, engage with the book, give me feedback on the book of course through the process — obviously I have appreciated that immensely — and for taking the time to come on the show as always. I can’t say favorite guest, but let’s be real, I love chatting with you.
BM: The guy who picks up the phone most frequently when you call, put it that way. I think it’s a real service that you do here on the podcast and with the books. I’m always happy to chat, it’s always a good time.