Recent York, 2013-17, the combined variety of taxis and ride-hailing vehicles rose by 59 per cent, whilst the latter drove lots of the former out of business; their combined mileage rose by multiple third.
Despite its success in trashing labour regulation and traffic reduction measures, Uber was losing money. Mountains of it: about $25 billion, between 2016 and 2020.
Uber not only transformed the taxi industry at drivers’ expense, and flooded the streets with cars that worsened traffic: it also “cycled through several daring visions to maintain investor money flowing, because it didn’t profitably deliver its ride-hailing service”, Marx writes.
It burned through billions, dabbling in micromobility services and with failed attempts to automate drivers and launch flying cars.
But losing money doesn’t mean Uber produced no advantages for capital, Marx argues. “Even when Uber eventually dies”, its contribution to the category struggle in rolling back gig economy staff’ rights will remain – potentially “a far larger win in the long run” for capital, if not reversed by government motion.
Marx, a technology journalist by trade and host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast, contextualises the tech bros’ actions within the social processes of which they’re part. They “move fast and break things”; they undermine labour rights and state regulation; their wealth is deployed in ways in which exacerbate the climate crisis.
This suited government, Marx argues. Within the post-recession decade, the enterprise capitalists who financed tech corporations’ loss-leading adventures “acted because the US’s central planners”, because the Recent York Magazine author Eric Levitz put it.
Marx writes: “While the political right criticised government decisions to offer support to particular corporations and sectors, they ignored how a strong group of rich men educated at Ivy League institutions were accountable for multi-billion-dollar funds that they used to cherry-pick corporations – that might corner particular market segments and finance them while they recorded substantial losses, […] driving out competition.”
It was not only that Uber. Google and Tesla did most within the early 2010s to advertise the “dream of ubiquitous autonomous vehicles”, Marx writes – a fantasy that will not be being realised.
The dream was not nearly self-driving cars. It was larger and more insidious: the concept that “we could all step back and let the tech sector solve the issues which have built up over the past century of bad political decisions about transportation” – problems which have cost thousands and thousands of lives and devastated communities by spreading cities out for the sake of cars.
But autonomous vehicles are “not the answer to the issues created by automobiles, because they themselves are still automobiles”. They take up an excessive amount of space; they encourage car-oriented urban development patterns; and they create an entire range of recent vulnerabilities.
One of the vital cringe-worthy stories Marx tells is of Elon Musk’s ludicrous Boring Company, that aimed to drive tunnels under cities.
Musk dismissed the concept of induced traffic – i.e. the incontrovertible fact that more roads produce more traffic, developed by a long time of transport research – as “probably the most irrational theories I’ve ever heard”, and vowed to construct “super protected, Earthquake-proof tunnels under cities to resolve traffic”.
The plans got here almost to nothing, as did those for flying cars.
Marx shows how such schemes reflect the privilege of Silicon Valley’s movers and shakers. To them, transport policy is about clearing the way in which for moneyed automotive owners to maneuver faster – and break more things, I suppose.
Electric vehicles, unlike driverless ones, do actually work, Marx argues – but large-scale adoption would bring recent environmental dangers brought on by demand for metals and other materials.
Cars are cars, and tackling the climate crisis means reducing their numbers: “As a substitute of attempting to have personal electric vehicles match the size of private gas or diesel vehicles, the emphasis should as an alternative be on getting people to shift from driving to taking transit and cycling, while constructing more walkable communities where necessities are closer to home.”
Marx doesn’t cover the role of the massive automotive manufacturers, who use their foothold in electric vehicle making to greenwash their unsustainable most important business, just as oil and gas corporations do with their miniscule investments in renewables.
Are there motoring journalists on the market who will do as thorough a job on Ford, VW, Nissan et al as Marx does on Silicon Valley? In that case, they will likely be swimming against the tide. Because the tech bros careered disastrously into urban transport systems, journalists, together with ride-hailers, bought the story they were selling.
Marx writes: “Within the years after Uber’s launch, and particularly its move into competition with the taxi industry, the media adopted the language of Silicon Valley to echo marketing claims that modern recent technologies were being developed to disrupt traditional industries for the higher.”
I like to recommend Road to Nowhere not just for what it says about transport, but for its approach to technologies more generally.
Marx understands that gadgets – be they ride-hailing apps and electric vehicles that work, or flying cars that don’t – should be considered of their social context. He also compares this generation of technologies with the people-damaging way that cars were introduced to rich-country cities within the early twentieth century.
Further, Marx shows how the connection of personal capital and the state counts here; and the way the assumptions inscribed in our culture, that technofixes will solve the issues capitalism has piled up for us, are as dangerous because the Silicon Valley whizz kids’ delusions.
Road to Nowhere shows how those whizz-kids are empowered by crisis-ridden capitalism to develop technologies in ways in which hurt us all. The query, “how can technologies be shaped to learn people, to not harm them?”, can only really get asked in the midst of our fight against capital.
In a final, forward-looking, chapter, Marx welcomes the measures taken by Paris, Oslo and other cities to de-centre cars, but insists that we want to go further. We want publicly-supported mobility apps, not Uber apps.
Transport systems must turn out to be an expression of “public abundance”, versus inequality and personal wealth. Computerised transport technologies must work along with urban planning, which can also be about technologies – even in the event that they aren’t all flashy gizmos.
Road to Nowhere is much ahead of the depressing pile of texts that put a “left” gloss on techno-optimism, slightly than understanding its social function, similar to the books by Holly Jean Buck and Andreas Malm embracing geoengineering – to say nothing of the crass “eco modernism” of Jacobin magazine’s Leigh Phillips.
Socialism desperately needs an understanding of technology in its social context. Without this, we’ll never learn find out how to develop the technological systems – including urban transport systems that minimise the automotive’s role – that we want, to live a greater life and to avert dangerous climate change.
Simon Pirani is honorary professor on the University of Durham within the UK, and creator of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto, 2018). He writes a blog at peoplenature.org. Follow him on Twitter: @SimonPirani1.