Gizmodo is 20 years old! To celebrate the anniversary, we’re looking back at some of the most significant ways our lives have been thrown for a loop by our digital tools.
When I first started driving, I had to print out directions from MapQuest before embarking on a trip to unfamiliar destination. If I didn’t plan correctly, I’d just have to stop and ask someone for directions. The smartphone and GPS changed everything. Suddenly, everyone had a little navigator in their pocket and getting lost became a thing of the past. Then, well, the tech sector kind of stopped improving transportation.
“We were promised flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters,” Peter Thiel famously once said. The irony is that few people were better positioned over the last two decades to make useful, world-changing technology. Instead, Thiel sat on the board at Facebook, expanded the surveillance state at Palantir, and shilled magic internet money. Still, the “we were promised flying cars” catchphrase has persisted as a gripe about our stupid tech toys and a lot of people have continued to promise those flying cars.
In their new book, Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, Paris Marx takes a look back at all the ways that self-driving cars, micromobility scooters, electric vehicles, and ridesharing services were supposed to make the world a better place but utterly failed to do so. Unfortunately, it seems our tech overlords have actually made a lot of things worse and their own faith in tech’s ability to solve any problem has left many of them in an untenable situation of moving the goal posts while hoping shareholders get distracted by shiny objects.
Marx hosts the podcast Tech Won’t Save Us and they did their master’s thesis on tech’s visions for the future of transportation. To help us understand how things have gone wrong and what we can do to make sure the next 20 years of innovation actually meets the challenges of our times, Marx was kind enough to speak with Gizmodo in a phone interview. Is the Boring Company tunnel a template for public transportation? Is there anything left to say about Uber being evil? Could Apple be a knight in shining armor? We discuss all that and more below.
Gizmodo: How would you rate the last 20 years of tech trying to tackle transportation?
Paris Marx: Geez, uh, maybe I can be generous and say like a D-plus, but I’d probably say an F.
Gizmodo: Well, that’s not too bad.
Marx: They’ve certainly had a whole load of ideas for transportation and how technology could be integrated into the transportation system to make improvements. But I would say in many cases, the promises that were made about those technologies simply weren’t well realized. Whether we’re looking at something like Uber and all the early promises that it made about reducing traffic congestion, improving convenience, and serving people who are underserved by transportation as well as making things better for drivers. Certainly there was a convenience element to it. And as I think we’re seeing recently, a lot of people are finding it less convenient than it used to be. But on those other counts, it hasn’t really provided benefits. We could look at self-driving cars and how that was going to transform the way that we get around and how it really has not been able to follow through on that. And it looks unlikely that it will ever have the kind of wide-ranging impacts that we were told it would.
We can look at things like micromobility, we can look at Tesla, and the electric vehicle. The electric vehicle is certainly an essential contribution to reducing emissions in the transport system, but treating it as a silver bullet or as though it’s going to be the only thing that we need to do is wrong and misleading. Then we can also look at the technologies that have been integrated into the car itself. And that’s pushed less by Silicon Valley tech companies and in many cases are things that have been developed with with the automakers. And certainly there are some benefits to some of those systems like lane keeping systems and things like that. But if we look at the entertainment systems, these automakers and the tech companies who make things like CarPlay and Android Auto, their desire to expand the size of those kind of screens. Studies increasingly show that they’re making people more distracted rather than less. So I think that we’re not seeing a whole lot of benefit there, but a lot of potential problems.
Gizmodo: Everyone is just watching Tesla right now, anticipating one of two outcomes: it’s going to be the most valuable company ever or it’s going to zero in a few years.
Marx: Yeah, absolutely. Edward Niedermayer, who wrote this book, Ludicrous, kind of describes how early on, Tesla was very much this electric vehicle company and it promised that it was going to create this luxury vehicle and it was going to use the proceeds from that to make a more affordable vehicle and then use the proceeds from that to make an even more affordable vehicle. There’s this real shift, because there’s a recognition that that strategy is not really working and it’s not bringing in the money that’s necessary. Tesla has continually had problems raising the amount of money that it needs to actually get its cars out into the world.
And so that is really a moment when you see Musk starts to make more of these big promises, like autonomous vehicles, like battery swapping stations and things like that in order to excite investors to buy the stock, to inflate the price of the stock by expecting that there’s going to be larger returns in the future when these big promises are realized. And even just recently, Elon Musk said that if they can’t solve self-driving technology, then the company is basically going to be useless. And so you can really see how the company has evolved from this electric vehicle company into something that is certainly more than that. And its valuation is [dependent on] that.
Gizmodo: Do you think Biden’s instinct to keep Elon Musk at arm’s length is a wise move? Or does Elon have a point about the White House backing fossil fuel-dependent manufacturers and his other competitors?
Marx: Sure, I think it kind of makes sense for Biden to have Musk at arm’s length. But it’s not so much because Biden is supporting fossil fuel companies, though he certainly hasn’t embarked on the climate measures that he’s promised. I think that it’s more that the general mood on the tech industry has changed and Elon Musk, it feels like, has changed as well. But also, Biden has really come to power as someone who is strongly supportive of unions. And he’s talked a lot about that during his time in office. And the earlier proposal that they had for electric vehicle tax credits involved additional money for vehicles that were produced by a factory where the workforce was unionized. So I think it kind of makes sense that the Biden administration hasn’t been as close to Musk because he’s continually opposed unions and continues to oppose unions. And Elon Musk himself has become more kind of powerful and doesn’t need to have that relationship to the government that he once needed with Obama or the Trump administration.
Gizmodo: Tesla’s had this nice head start. But incumbent competitors and new start-ups are increasingly making progress. Have you gotten any kind of read on how Tesla compares to its rivals on an ethical level?
Marx: In pointing out issues that Tesla has had is not to say that traditional carmakers have never had their own series of problems. I believe some of the Japanese or Korean automakers, I think some of their plants in the US don’t use unionized labor. And the American automakers have had a lot of issues in their history with safety and have certainly had their own issues with labor, layoffs, and fighting unions. I do think, though, that a lot of the more labor-oriented issues are worked out over the occasional fights with unions around compensation and layoffs. Whereas Musk’s company seems to have much deeper problems. There are also very poor manufacturing practices that leave the workers at higher risk of injury but also result in lower quality vehicles. And the statements of the workers themselves suggest that Tesla does have a notably racist workplace. A lot of women have spoken about the sexism at Tesla as well. And that’s not something that you hear as much from the other automakers where [workers] are unionized. So I do think that if we’re kind of grading the different automakers, it’s not to say that the traditional ones are incredible and great and there are no problems there. But I do think that ultimately Tesla is worse if we’re thinking about ethics.
Gizmodo: You’re pretty critical of the potential for EVs in general, at least as far as their ability to save us from climate death. Could you explain what you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about EVs?
Marx: I’m not anti-EV. I think that electric vehicles certainly have a role to play in addressing the contribution to climate change in the transportation system. I think that especially in North America, we have decades, almost a century of building for the automobile, and that’s not going to be reversed overnight. And so I do think that we’re still going to have cars on the road and that as much as possible, those cars should be electric vehicles because, especially if it’s a vehicle that’s being used regularly, if you’re replacing a conventional fossil fuel vehicle with an electric vehicle, you are getting an environmental benefit. But I do think that environmental benefit does tend to be overstated. And we act as though it’s a silver bullet to zero emissions. And so, I would say that there are a lot of issues with the electric vehicle that often get left out of the narrative we have about the electric vehicle.
And part of those are just inherent problems with cars themselves that the electric vehicle doesn’t solve. Electric vehicles do still have global air pollution because a lot of the particulate matter comes from tire wear, brake wear, taking up dust that’s already on the road. And those things aren’t changed. And the electric vehicle can actually make it worse because they tend to be heavier, where their batteries are heavier those vehicles are heavier than conventional vehicles.
You can also think about how if the vehicle is not powered by renewables, there will be energy burn, there will be emissions that power the vehicle. And those emissions are not coming from the vehicle itself, but where the power plant is located. And those tend to be located near lower income communities.
And again, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t move toward electric vehicles, but we should be aware of those things. And I think that the biggest issue for me is really the supply chain. What is necessary to create that battery. I think this is being recognized a bit more, but I think there’s been a desire to have us not pay much attention to it, that there’s a huge mining footprint for these batteries. These are really large batteries, especially as the focus has been on having a really long range. Finding those minerals is not only going to cause a significant increase in the amount of mining and resource extraction that needs to happen, but all of that extraction also has consequences for the communities that are around those mines. They have environmental consequences both in terms of emissions, but as well as local environmental damage. They have consequences for the communities that are around those mines that often don’t get the kind of support or financial benefits that they’re promised but also have to deal with the environmental consequences, whether it’s the poisoning of the earth or taking water away to supply the mines. And that doesn’t mean that they’re worse than fossil fuel vehicles, but we need to be aware of them.
Gizmodo: Is there anything left to say about Uber that you think even people who pay attention might not understand?
Marx: I think one of the things that stood out to me as I was researching the book and kind of going back and looking at the history was to see how Uber emerges in this particular period where there’d already been some degree of chipping away at taxi regulations in the United States. And taxi regulations were established so that cities could have some control over the number of vehicles that were on the street. So it gave them control over that to reduce traffic congestion. But by controlling the number of vehicles, you could also ensure that the drivers themselves had a certain expectation of earnings and there were certain regulations on fares and things like that. And so, over time, there is a slow chipping away at that regulatory framework as well as the unions of the taxi drivers themselves. At the moment that Uber emerges, there’d already been this process of slowly chipping away over the course of a number of decades, but there’s still the protection of the regulation of the fare. And drivers can still expect a certain amount of earnings or whatnot from that.
In the nineties, there was an effort to further deregulate the taxi sector and to basically remove those protections that existed in the regulatory framework. And then a lot of major cities, they were not successful in doing that. This is a campaign that was funded by the Koch brothers pushed by libertarian groups in the United States. And when Uber emerges, it kind of takes up that playbook that was established in the 1990s so that it could wage its war on taxi regulations. And it was basically successful in ensuring that it was written out of those regulations. It was not treated as a taxi company, but rather, as a transportation network company. They did not have a limit on the number of vehicles that could be on the road. And so they essentially decimated the regulatory environment for taxis.
Uber was then able to determine what that was going to look like in various cities. As a result, that’s where we get that increased convenience. So there are more vehicles on the road, so it is easier to get access to an Uber vehicle, hailed a vehicle than it would have been in the previous taxi system. But that also had consequences where it increased traffic congestion. A number of academic studies have shown that this is what occurred, also studies by transportation agencies within various cities. And it had the effect on drivers that we all know about decimating the incomes of taxi drivers, but also over time reducing the amount of money that Uber drivers made as well. And so it really demonstrates how this was a process undertaken by this company that wanted to change the regulatory structure and the rights of workers to benefit themselves more than anything else. And now, more than a decade after this process has begun, we’re starting to see those regulations being effectively written into law, and especially on the labor side, that’s now also having consequences for people in other industries who are doing other types of work as well, as there are further attempts to try to make them not employees and change those relationships.
Gizmodo: It’s an interesting time for Uber, they spent something like $32 billion to finally reach a point of positive cash flow.
Marx: I’m kind of skeptical of those numbers anyway.
Gizmodo: Accounting magic aside, do you think that represents a point of entrenchment for them? Or do you think that their situation is just as precarious as ever?
Marx: This morning I was reading an analysis of those numbers by Hubert Horan who’s been a long-time critic of Uber and has always had the receipts. And his argument is, effectively, that they’re still in as precarious a situation as they’ve always been, and that part of the reason for their improvement in this quarter is that once again, they are taking a larger portion of the customer’s fare because they’ve increased the price of using the service, but they’ve also ensured that less of that money is going to the drivers. And so there’s a further transfer of revenue from labor to capital.
And it’s not clear at all that they’ll be able to continue that approach because one of the points that Horan has made over and over again is that the actual service that they provide is not as efficient as the traditional taxi service because they have a lot of additional costs that the traditional taxi service didn’t have. When you think of the high executive salaries, the expensive HQs, the software teams and all these engineers that they have to pay that have really high salaries compared to what you’d be paying at a taxi company. And they also have a less efficient model of delivery of the service, because you have all of these vehicles waiting around, but the vehicles are also part of a fleet. And so you don’t have the kind of efficiencies in maintaining them that a traditional taxi company would. So Uber has been trying to get us to believe for a number of years that it’s finding a more efficient model, that it’s finding profitability, all these sorts of things. It never seems to be able to follow through and make those things permanent. And I think its model is always precarious because it’s not actually better than what existed before.
Gizmodo: And one thing that has been a major part of Uber from the beginning has been the promise of self-driving technology and flying cars.
Marx: Yeah, that’s all gone. Self-driving flying cars are gone, micromobility is gone. It’s all been sold off.
Gizmodo: At Tesla, Elon is still saying that full self-driving is still the plan. But he’s also admitting that his company is basically worthless without it, even though they ditched Lidar, and Google has seemed to take things a little slower.
Marx: And in regulatory filings [Tesla] has admitted that its system isn’t self-driving. So it seems like on one hand, there’s a kind of a public face for this autopilot system and full self-driving beta that they’re putting out there. But then in discussions with regulators, it seems to be an admission that it’s something entirely different. And I think Tesla is effectively shown that its ability to really achieve self-driving is not going to happen and it’s more of a PR play because it can never really achieve it without the Lidar. Even major companies like Google’s Waymo have kind of admitted that they’re going for level four self-driving rather than level five. So it will work within a kind of geofenced area, but won’t be able to deal with absolutely everything.
Gizmodo: At one point in the book you characterized Google as kind of having too much faith in its self-driving technology and I mean it’s kind of funny because it really doesn’t matter to them. They have a successful business.
Marx: But it’s not just that it would become a huge revenue stream that would transform the business, it’s more just that I think there’s this general faith in technology and the way that technology develops and that they can achieve these things. Because I would say it’s not just Google who had that faith in self-driving technology, all these companies who are working on it did to a certain degree, and really believed that it was something that they were going to be able to figure out and make a reality within a few years. Then they had to be hit with the hard reality of how difficult to realize their goal actually was. I think it just speaks to a bigger kind of faith in technology that exists within many of these companies and even the society as a whole, to a certain degree, that you just kind of turn these big data sets toward what you want to achieve. And they eventually figure it out. And time and time again, I think we’re seeing that’s not really being realized.
Gizmodo: Are you familiar with the former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski’s Church of AI?
Marx: I’ve heard of that. I wouldn’t say I’m familiar with it.
Gizmodo: It’s just always fascinated me. You have your Travis Kalanick figures where there’s plenty of evidence to show that this was a guy who’s aware of when he’s fucking people over; aware of when he’s selling a lie. And then you’ve got this engineer [Levandowsky] who, by most accounts, really does seem to believe that we’re going to build a God bot that will be so powerful we will worship it someday. And, I’m curious what your sense is of the technology industry, in general. Do you think people are true believers or are they mostly just kind of keeping their cards close to their vest and making big promises?
Marx: I would certainly say that there’s a mix, right? There are people who are more true believers and more people who are just, I guess, putting policies out there and hoping it’s going to benefit them in a certain way. I would say that just in general, like I would argue that Silicon Valley and the way that Silicon Valley approaches problems is really defined by this faith in technology and the speed that technology will continue to improve and it can solve these problems as long as we put enough energy into it and we’re able to innovate the technologies and whatnot. And you can really see that in transportation.
There is this desire to believe that all we need to do is to connect the transportation system with these new technologies, whether it’s technologies to put in your car, whether it’s hailing taxis from your smartphone app, whether it’s putting these sensors on a car and having a computer figure out what it’s going to do. There is this real faith that technology will be able to do all these things and that in using these technologies we’d reduce traffic congestion, we’d eliminate deaths on the road, we’d eliminate or significantly reduce the transportation system’s contribution to climate change, we’d ensure that it was much easier for underserved people to get access to transportation, all of these things. And largely that has not been followed through on.
And if we look at companies like Uber, they’ve actually largely achieved the opposite. And so I think that general faith is there. I think that defines a lot of the thinking and approach to problem-solving in Silicon Valley. And I think there is a real desire to ignore the politics and why problems are the way that they are in the first place. Actually solving these problems requires more than free markets and better technology. It actually requires taking on the difficult political side of these problems that these people have little interest in or don’t want to engage in.
Gizmodo: Is the Boring Company the single dumbest transportation innovation of the 21st century?
Marx: I think it has a lot of competition. But yeah, it’s definitely fair to say that it was founded based on a really stupid understanding of transportation and how it works. Pretty much anyone who knows anything about transportation would tell you it would never actually work. It’s also interesting that before Elon Musk proposed tunnels, his initial proposal was to build a second level on highways in order to enable more traffic flow, more vehicles to drive there. And we have decades of experience and know that expanding highways doesn’t actually reduce traffic. And so the idea of putting tunnels under cities is just even worse. And I think it’s really appropriate that the first tunnel that is actually realized is like little more than a Disneyland ride for Tesla enthusiasts in Las Vegas. It feels particularly fitting, and I really don’t think there’s any sensible future for that kind of company and the idea of transportation that it’s trying to sell.
Gizmodo: On a certain level, you could see his whole idea of ‘let’s make public transport but with cars’ appealing to Americans who are comfortable with cars. But I just don’t really get what is he doing.
Marx: I think it also goes back to what I was saying earlier in terms of the distraction that Elon Musk has achieved really effectively. To try to distract from real solutions to the problems that the automobile has created and things that would require less car dependence and to actually offer people alternatives to the car and to instead kind of intervene and say, no, actually, I have these ideas that are going to be even better than that, and we should pursue those instead to try to sap energy from alternatives. So the Hyperloop, for example, he admitted to his biographer that the reason the Hyperloop was announced—even though he had no intention of pursuing it—was to try to disrupt the California high-speed rail project and to get in the way of that actually succeeding.
I would say the Boring Company just kind of slides in there as a way to distract from efforts to improve public transit and have a greater focus on transit as a means of solving these problems with the automobile. Instead of, say, building subway systems he could say, look we’re going to build these really cheap tunnels, you’ll be able to take your car into it. And later he said, why also make it so people who don’t have cars can use it, too. And that promise doesn’t exist any longer either. And that’s really good for him as an automaker.
Gizmodo: Apple is much more sensitive to being seen as helpful and tries hard to avoid making promises that fail in public. They want to get it right before they even promise. I’m curious if you’ve put any thought into what you would like to see from an Apple car. What could Apple do to improve transportation where others have failed?
Marx: Can I say I’d like to not see an Apple car?
Gizmodo: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s kind of the thesis of your book: no more cars.
Marx: Yeah. Or as few cars as possible. I don’t think we’re going to eliminate cars, unfortunately, just because of the infrastructure that we have. But I think that if you look at a company like Tesla, I think that Tesla’s role to some degree is really to provide a rebrand for the automobile. It’s creating a type of car for a particular type of person who wants to present themselves in a particular type of way. And the auto industry has a long history of making cars that appeal to particular segments of the population, but they never really made the tech part for the Silicon Valley folks. Tesla kind of came along and did that and provided a lot of people with a car that they can identify with and get them to buy more into mobility.
One of my arguments is that one of Elon Musk’s contributions to transportation over the past decade or so is really to try to stifle alternatives, things that would try to get people out of cars. Because he is this automaker, he has this desire for people to take cars instead of taking transit. So I think that that’s something that Elon Musk has really accomplished. And I think that he has really tried to make the Apple of cars, essentially. And so if we look at Apple trying to get into the automotive market, if it actually ends up making a car, I think it’s kind of appealing to a certain market segment and trying to start trying to create cars that incentivize certain people to remain drivers and to still own a car instead of doing something else or looking beyond auto-mobility. If Apple wanted to make a positive contribution, I guess they could find a way to discourage people from driving. But I don’t think they’re really going to do that because Apple’s not going to operate a public transit service. Ultimately the solutions to these problems are going to have to come from public agencies. I don’t think that Apple or Tesla are really going to lead us in the right direction.
Gizmodo: A lot of the evidence seems to be pointing to more like what you were talking about earlier, Apple is going to make it even more distracting to drive with some kind of in-car system.
Marx: Yeah. Obviously, we haven’t seen the car. At the moment, we don’t know what they’re going to present. But if you look at their most recent keynote, they showed off an updated CarPlay system, which is their entertainment system to take over the inside of your car. It was not just this large touchscreen. And the large touchscreen that replaces all of your physical knobs and buttons is something that was pioneered by Tesla and then adopted by other automakers because there was a desire to replicate this aesthetic, even though a lot of regular drivers complain about the fact that these touch screens make it harder to adjust temperature and other options while you’re driving because you don’t have that tactile feedback anymore, you have to look away to make those changes.
But what Apple showed off was your large touchscreen in the center, but then a screen that goes along the whole front of your dashboard, from the driver’s side to the passenger side. And that not only had information on planning where you’re going, the speed you’re going, but a whole load of information that you really don’t need while you’re driving, like your calendar updates, multiple clocks, and all this other information. There have already been studies on the earlier CarPlay and Android auto systems that suggest they make people more distracted and not less so. And so my concern is that as you see these systems expand you just make people even more distracted by essentially turning the car into a smartphone when the whole goal was supposed to be to make it so we don’t look at our smartphones while we’re driving.
So I think that there are a lot of risks there. And it seems like these companies, in developing these systems, are kind of assuming that autonomous driving has been created. So it’s just making things more dangerous and more distracting.
And Apple has supposedly been working on autonomous driving for a number of years. But a recent report in The Information suggests that they’re really not having very much success with that. And so if it creates one of these cars, I don’t think it’s going to have the self-driving capabilities that have been promised. But it might have more of these distracting screens that will make driving even riskier.
Gizmodo: In an alternate universe, if Elon Musk and Google’s promises of self-driving benchmarks had actually been met and we actually were getting where we were promised, do you think we would be any better off?
Marx: I think it’s entirely possible there’d be some benefits that would come from that. But I think that these companies, as we see time and again from the tech industry, have a reason to sell it like a vision that has the negative aspects of it obstructed or not present in those visions. It certainly is not just the tech industry that does that. I went back to the early days of the automobile and you can see how the auto companies were selling all the positives of the automobile, of mobility, of suburbanization, and none of the drawbacks raised, this is something that happens time and again.
And so they certainly sold us these idyllic communities that self-driving would create where we don’t own cars and all this sort of stuff. But there are a lot of academic studies that suggest that because of the way that society is right now, because of the private housing system and whatnot, that autonomous vehicles would likely result in more driving because [people] didn’t actually have to be in control of the wheel itself. And so that will create more vehicle miles and travel, which could create more traffic congestion as well.
I’m concerned about what all of that computing and the data generated by all those vehicles would mean for emissions and energy. I think that’s something that gets downplayed a lot when we think about self-driving technology. And I think just, finally, if we’re thinking about a company like Google, the idea that a self-driving vehicle wouldn’t turn into something to track everything that goes on around it, everything that goes on inside of it, and to serve ads to people just doesn’t seem realistic. I think it would be a really negative development, and certainly they wouldn’t want us to realize that before it actually gets entrenched.
Self-Driving vehicle companies share data with police and there’s hardly any on the road. Imagine if they were a mass thing that everyone’s using. I think it’d be terrible.
Gizmodo: Well, on the opposite end, it seems like a lot of people are writing the obituary of scooter companies, do you think that’s a good thing?
Marx: Yeah, I do. There are some people who would argue that the scooter companies have had positive impacts. I think maybe you could argue that initially when they rolled out, they helped to kick off a conversation around the streets and the distribution of space on streets. But largely, I don’t think they’ve had the benefits that they claimed. Studies that have been done on these scooter companies suggest that because they were so disposable that the emissions impact and the climate impact of these services were actually pretty enormous because they had to recycle the vehicles so often.
One of the things I identify in the book is how they basically took up space on sidewalks without really consulting with the communities and the people who would be affected by that. And one of the problems there is that this kind of VC-funded model allowed these companies to just bulldoze their way into VC, to not consider the impacts of their rollout, to not consider who was actually being served or the best way to serve the community. It was just whatever worked best for these companies and their business models and their business goals.
And so one of the good things now that these companies are really kind of collapsing in many cases, we saw Bolt just basically abandoned a bunch of cities the other day. It basically just left the vehicles on the streets and they couldn’t be activated or anything. Hopefully, they’ll go pick them up. But now that this easy money is drying up and interest rates are going up. These companies don’t have access to the capital that they had before. And so there’s a possibility now that cities will be able to kind of retake some of that control and to ensure that there are proper regulatory structures in place and that these companies actually have a community benefit if they’re going to be able to operate.
I would just say broadly on the micromobility companies, I think that there’s probably a role for a bike share service. I think that makes sense to me. I’m less convinced that sharing scooters actually makes any degree of sense because I think they are a much more affordable vehicle and they’re also much more disposable. They can be broken much more easily when they’re used in this kind of fleet scenario. And so I think something like a long-term rental service or just incentivizing purchase makes a lot more sense for those kinds of vehicles.
Gizmodo: You’re upfront about being a socialist and approaching your analysis from a socialist perspective. Do you have optimism that what needs to be done to improve, and fix transportation is possible in a capitalist society?
Marx: It’s a good question. I would say that I think that improvements can be achieved in that we can see that in many places around the world that the decay of forces and desires of capital can be effectively pushed back against to have good transit systems that serve people effectively or to have high rates of bicycle use and things like that within cities and to ensure that the infrastructure is created and the street space is provided for those things to be realized.
Even if we look at, say, Paris during the pandemic has had a huge shift toward bicycle use and things like that because the government has been slowly building these things over the course of a couple of decades and then really used the opportunity of the pandemic to advance the plans to encourage people to cycle. And it’s really worked.
Gizmodo: If you could ensure that Pete Buttigieg got one thing done with the rest of time in office as Transportation Secretary what would it be?
Marx: There are a million things that they could do, from reducing highway funding to increasing funding for the train system. And I know that there’s been a focus on that for Biden. But I would say really ensuring that there is a greater focus and more dedicated funding toward public transit systems so that cities can really start expanding those services, have dedicated funding for it, ideally even operations funding, so that you’re not just getting funding for like capital projects or building out subway lines or buying busses, but actually getting subsidies for the operation of the service itself, which is a big ongoing cost that can often be more difficult to find money for.
Gizmodo: Are there any transportation success stories in the U.S. that you think are worth highlighting?
Marx: There are plenty. I know that Seattle’s had increases in its transit ridership as it’s improved things over there. As critical as you can be of L.A. and its car dependence, there has been a lot of investment in recent years in expanding the transit system there, improving the bus system, expanding the subway system. And certainly, they still have a ways to go. But it really shows that these things can be possible, that these changes can be made, and that can be really positive, even though there are a lot of roadblocks in the way.
Gizmodo: What should we do to fix transportation, generally, and what are some specifics that would go a long way?
Marx: I think if we were really looking to address the problems with the transportation system, there should be less of a focus on getting people new cars and cars with new technologies and really reinvest in the alternatives to cars that used to be more prevalent in North American cities. You’d really want to see greater investments in public transit systems so that they are more frequent, more reliable, serve larger segments of the city, but also have the kind of rights of way so that they’re not being stuck in car traffic all the time. There’s bike lanes, bike parking facilities, so that people could feel safe to take their bike to go places. I think even beyond the city, we would want to see investments in the rail system both to improve existing connections but also to finally build out a proper high-speed rail network in North America, which would encourage people not only to take those kinds of inter-city trips without cars but also to replace plane travel as well.
But we also need to recognize that transportation is one system of many. The automobile enabled suburbia and the build-out of that kind of community. Then that made it so that people could not really get around in any other way. And so I think we’d also need to see a focus on the housing system and how we build and create our communities so that people do live closer to the services that they need, whether that’s their workplaces, the doctor, the grocery store, so that they don’t need to travel as far in order to reach those things.
Then we also need to recognize how improving the transportation system within a city or a housing system that is private also has its own troubles. If you improve transportation and then the cost of housing goes up, then you push out the people who would benefit most from those improvements. So there are a lot of issues to consider there. It’s not just one silver bullet thing that needs to happen because creating this did not just result from one action or one change or, or anything like that. There is the possibility of better transportation, better cities. It just requires a fight to achieve great things.