The world’s richest man is a South African mining heir with a mile-long string of failed promises to fix the United States’ traffic problems — underground tunnels to thin out the roads, electric vehicles to cut emissions, autonomous driving to free up commute time. Despite this almost unbroken record of disappointments, back outs, and screwups, Elon Musk somehow retains the ability to get ass-kissing media coverage with each inane tweet he produces.
Thank God, then, for Paris Marx’s new book, Road to Nowhere, on Silicon Valley and its terrible impact on the nation’s roads. A fascinating and easy read, it’s a breezy trip through Big Tech’s stunningly ill-conceived quick fixes for the US transportation system. What could feel like dry tech history instead becomes a fast-moving analysis that pinpoints how our trainwreck of a transportation system could have been different — and still could be.
Off the Rails
A Canadian podcast host and socialist writer (including for Jacobin), Paris Marx peels out with a quick background chapter on the early history of conventional automobile development. Before the advent of the automobile, US roads were used by pedestrians, vendors, and all manner of traffic, including horses and bicycles. Almost as soon as it became commercially viable, however, the internal combustion–powered car started to dominate the road.
Roadway deaths and injuries shot up, especially among children, becoming a national scandal since “the mass death caused by automobiles had not yet been normalized.” In the four years after World War I, more Americans were killed by cars than had died in France in the conflict. Proposals to restrict cars proliferated. One popular regulation would have mandated speed limiters to cap the travel pace of cars (a measure now required for new car models in European markets) and could have taken the United States off the car-centric path of the twentieth century.
But the auto industry was able to use its deep pockets — and numerous business allies, including the oil, rubber, and construction industries, salivating at the new suburbs that cars were enabling — to defeat these policy efforts. Newspapers piled on in opposition to any limits on cars, since the industries involved were among their biggest ad buyers. Soon, states and the feds were building highways and interstates that cemented the inefficient, dangerous, and climate-wrecking mass use of cars.
At several points, the US could have changed course. After the 1973–74 OPEC oil embargo, European states turned away from their postwar car-focused transport plans and embraced bikes and fast trains. But the United States doubled down after the “energy crisis” passed. Cars continued to reign supreme.
Elon Musk’s attempts to make the personal car–based model look sustainable collide head-on with reality in Road to Nowhere. This includes a funny bit on Musk’s first proposed route for his Boring Company’s tunnels, which were essentially single-lane subterranean roads for Teslas. Hilariously, the route was slated to run from his neighborhood to the neighborhood where he worked: the genius “Hyperloop” — which Musk wanted underwritten with public dollars — was nothing more than a traffic escape hatch for an impatient man-child.
Musk is most associated with Tesla, the electric vehicle (EV) company that people tend to believe he founded, but in fact took over as CEO after pushing out the founders. Marx details another episode of missed opportunities when he informs the reader that EVs were close to being widely adopted in the 1890s. EVs were popular, but the internal combustion–based automakers and their large supply industries politically outmaneuvered the EV makers and their electric utility allies. Later, in 1990, California mandated that carmakers market at least 2 percent of their models with electric engines. Again, the auto industry flexed its political muscle, getting the mandate revoked and putting EV cars on a far slower development timeline.
And for all their emission-cutting value, EV cars only look better than the mainstream car in terms of their tailpipe-emissions profile — the rest of the production chain is just as hideous, as seen in the rampant child labor and high birth-defect rates around Congolese cobalt mines. EVs, Marx notes, “will not address the fundamental problems with a transportation system built around automobiles. . . . The mining industry has begun a significant expansion to support the mass production of electric vehicles, and it too will create mass suffering and environmental damage.” In other words, subsidizing rich households to buy Teslas is a poor climate change policy.
Marx also reminds the reader that much of EV technology itself is a product of state research — either directly or through large research funders like DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, and the National Science Foundation — from the original packet-switching internet protocols to touch-screen interfaces and Wi-Fi. Musk’s roughly $5 billion in public subsidies across his various birdbrained projects underlines the point.
After rinsing away the greenwashing of EVs, Marx moves on to another prominent tech entrée into transport: ride-hailing apps. The industry exemplifies what Marx calls “elite projection,” where rich people assume that their inconveniences and preferred solutions are shared by everyone else.
Uber’s original founder wanted cheaper ways to hire private drivers for high-end black car service. The company then broadened the service, thinking that the solution to gridlock was to destroy the union- and regulation-based security of taxi drivers. Thanks to venture capitalists willing to accept perennial heavy losses — Uber has shed $5.6 billion just this year — the company undercut traditional taxis and created a whole new class of precarious gig workers, on the hook for their own insurance (health and auto alike) and constantly on the road looking for fares. Voila: an ostensible anti-gridlock “disruption” that has winded up increasing traffic.
Uber and Lyft drivers’ lack of employment security, the companies’ refusal to provide decent benefits, and drivers’ obligation to pay for their own vehicles and insurance are especially ugly compared to the old medallion-licensed taxi system, which, for all its flaws, kept taxi traffic under control and provided drivers a relatively stable working-class living. The ride-hailing firms were able to skirt this system by posing as tech rather than transport companies, tapping into the deep pro-market streak in US politics, and by resorting to illegal tools like “greyball” to avoid city regulators and show them false information. All of this dealt a blow to cab drivers (who already worked long hours in often dangerous conditions) and to those with mobility issues (who relied on ADA standards that ride-hailing firms duck).
Marx keeps their eye, too, on the fundamentals of the car-based system, including the never-ending squandering of public budgets on expanding roads. The tendency of commuters to proportionately react to the incentives created by new transit investments, whether new subway lines or wider roads, is well documented (it’s known in the field as “induced demand”). You can see its ugly side in the infamous Katy Freeway in Houston. It was widened from eight to twenty-three total lanes. It now looks like this. And yet commute times have risen for 85 percent of drivers.
Tapping the Brakes
There are some inevitable limitations to Marx’s book — for example, the scant discussion of the private jet, the most outrageous, despoiling elite travel model of them all. The book is about transportation relevant to mass use and policymaking, so it’s a sensible omission, but we could benefit from remembering that many of the superrich only go so far on roads in any form.
Yet Road to Nowhere is a fun read — Marx’s writing pairs brutally realistic analysis with a consummately Canadian level of indictment. The history of cars taking over the roads, for example, is summarized: “There is a lot that is not to like.” Fighting words in Newfoundland!
Marx concludes with a beautiful and convincing description of the far more efficient and socially just transportation system that progressives have been promoting for years — well-funded and expanded public transit within cities and fast trains between them, powered by a renewable energy grid designed to serve everyone. Taking inspiration from Chinese trains, Dutch bikes, and the efficiencies of shared urban wealth rather than the elite projection of bored billionaires, Marx’s portrait of a future of socialist mobility is one that will move you inwardly, and hopefully, one day, outwardly.
You may find yourself driven to drink by the events recounted in this book, but Marx is a designated driver you can count on.