Review of Road to Nowhere: what Silicon Valley gets wrong about the future of transportation, by Paris Marx (2022, Verso)
Unleashing Uber on cities would cut car ownership, because ride-hailing would be cheaper, Travis Kalanick, then Uber’s chief executive, claimed in 2015. It would reduce traffic congestion, allow car parks to be converted to other uses, and complement public transport with its “last mile” service.
Investors bought into Kalanick’s story, that Uber’s innovative app would produce these benefits, to the tune of billions of dollars. Central to his patter was the claim that Uber was a tech company, not a transport company (since denied by courts in the UK and New Zealand), and his crusade against local government regulations and the “taxi cartel”.
In Road to Nowhere, Paris Marx not only unmasks these falsehoods, but also explains Silicon Valley’s place in the broader crisis of capital, and the social, economic and ecological damage it does.
Marx recounts how Uber expanded in the US after the 2008 recession, flooding the market with drivers, to whom it offered incentives that were then withdrawn, while pay was cut.
Uber’s predatory pricing, financed by stock exchange investors, drove traditional taxi companies out of business. Taxi drivers’ incomes plummeted and their lives fell apart, triggering a slew of suicides.
The post-recession environment provided both a large pool of precarious labour and what Marx calls “incredible technological optimism” (page 109). Central to Uber’s strategy was an assault on cities’ transport regulations and on the labour conditions won over decades by taxi drivers’ union power. Uber and the other technology companies, cheered on by US conservatives and libertarians, deployed technologies as weapons in the class war.
In the midst of the gathering climate crisis, Uber’s new technology drove greenhouse emissions upwards. Directly contradicting Kalanick’s promises, the Uber model put more vehicles on the road.Read the rest of this entry »