Social Justice

Here's why we shouldn't leave the future of transport to Silicon Valley

Tech companies promise green and convenient transport – but who for? Canadian technology writer Paris Marx says they're planning for the few not the many.

Silicon Valley future of transport

Photo: Getty / d3sign

We know our transport system needs to be fixed. The way we’re doing things right now harms the environment. Road traffic crashes are the eighth leading cause of death globally. Our roads are congested, public transport frequently unreliable.

The tech whizzes of Silicon Valley say they can fix all this, offering a future that’s safer, greener, and more efficient. But have we fallen for the hype?

Paris Marx is a Canadian technology writer and host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast. He argues that tech innovators have failed to keep many of the promises they’ve made so far, and their future vision could ultimately make society worse.

This is a condensed version of Paris Marx’s conversation on BetterPod – The Big Issue’s weekly podcast that asks how we can act today for a better tomorrow. Listen below or at your regular podcast provider.

We need to be more sceptical of Big Tech

“We tend to believe the positive visions of the tech companies too much, and not pay attention to the negative impacts they’ve had on society. They’ve expanded surveillance. They’ve attacked the rights of workers.

“Maybe these tech founders mean well in proposing solutions to major problems, but when we assess the promises they made five or 10 years down the line, we see they didn’t actually solve the problems that they claimed to want to solve. In many cases they have actually made them worse.”

Tech writer Paris Marx, author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transport
Tech writer Paris Marx, author of Road to Nowhere

If we allow Silicon Valley to shape the future of transport, it could exclude many people

“People who have less access to resources are the ones that are going to be least able to adjust to this society. There’s an expectation now that everyone should have a smartphone to access services. There are a lot of people who are excluded by that.

“One of the lines that a lot of these tech companies use is that they’re going to make transportation better for people with disabilities. What we see time and time again is that that rhetoric is used, but then the actual implementation makes life more difficult for people with disabilities. In the case of Uber, in the United States they’ve explicitly had themselves written out of the Americans with Disabilities Act. So they don’t need to provide wheelchair accessible service, because they are considered a technology company rather than a transportation company.

“If we look at the newer things that are being rolled out on the streets, people will be familiar with these micro mobility services – the dockless e-scooters in particular – that have rolled out in recent years. In many cases, you know, those are just dropped on the sidewalk. Some people can easily walk over them. But people with guide dogs can’t get around them so easily. People with wheelchairs certainly can’t navigate around them.

“One of the ideas we’re seeing increasingly rolled out is these delivery robots that are supposed to bring your burrito, or whatever other little thing that you order, to your door. Sure, it’s novel and can look cute, but there are examples where these have been tested, and people in wheelchairs or people with guide dogs have encountered them and then not been able to navigate around them.”

We can build a better, more inclusive future for transport

“To address the serious problems with transportation – the deaths that people experience on the road, the contribution to climate change, the fact that so many people are stuck in traffic, even the cost of owning a vehicle – we have to look toward collective solutions.

“That means a much greater investment in the transit [public transport] system to provide accessible, affordable transit for people, so they can get out of their cars in a more realistic way. Beyond that, ensuring that the infrastructure is there so that people can use a bike.

“The transportation system is one system that’s connected with a whole other load of systems that determine how we live and the kind of society that we have. One of the problems that can arise when transportation improves, is that property prices around that transportation soar and the people who would most benefit from improved transportation get priced out and have to move somewhere else. So we need to improve the transportation system, but we also need to think about what’s necessary in the housing system. So that people can actually afford to live in these communities.”

There are places we can look for inspiration

“In Paris, they have had a significant increase in cycling through the pandemic, just by closing streets and ensuring bike lanes are there. In Oslo, they have taken a tonne of parking spots out of the centre of the city, and replaced those with bicycle parking, or little seating areas for people to sit down and have these human interactions within the middle of the city. It discourages using your automobile because now there’s going to be nowhere to park.

“China has been building a really significant high speed rail system that we can probably learn from, in order to see how we can connect our cities better and reduce the amount of flying that goes on.

“In Latin America, bus rapid transit systems are really popular. So if subways are too expensive, or don’t work for a particular city, you have these dedicated lanes for this kind of bus system that can still go really quickly.”

Tech won’t save us. It’s going to take political will

“When there’s a new technology we need to ask: is this something that actually benefits the public? Or is it simply being rolled out because it benefits a certain commercial interest or a certain billionaire?

“Technology itself is not what makes society better. It’s technology paired with a politics that can ensure that technology does good in the world. That’s too often what we’re lacking in Silicon Valley, where we have these people who have a deep faith in technology and the free market, and want nothing to do with the political system and actually ensuring that there’s a good politics in place that’s helping people.”

Paris Marx was speaking to Laura Kelly and Sophie Dimitrijevic for BetterPod – The Big Issue’s weekly podcast that asks how we can act today for a better tomorrow. Listen to the full series at your regular podcast provider or here.

Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation by Paris Marx is out now (Verso)

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