Reflections on congestion and technology

by Emrys Westacott

Last week I drove from the small college town in upstate New York where I live to New York City. Traffic_330_1a1i8i2-1a1i8i8 We covered the 306 miles from home to the George Washington Bridge, which takes one into Manhattan, in just under five hours. The next 15 miles, through Manhattan to our destination in Brooklyn, with a quick pick up and drop off on the Upper West Side, took an hour and a half. The following day we had a similarly miserable experience driving from Brooklyn to midtown.

I understand that a country mouse like myself is likely to be both not very savvy about and easily unsettled by the ways of the big bad city. Even so, the congestion, the jungle-law etiquette, the impatient honking, the anxiety induced by reckless cyclists passing on left and right, the lanes blocked by delivery vehicles, the need for so many police officers to direct traffic and pedestrians at snarled intersections, the difficulty of finding street parking–all this had me shaking my head. I know that thousands do it every day. Many do it for a living. And a few no doubt enjoy it. But regularly spending hours in congested traffic, even in a taxi on a bus, is no part of the good life in my book. At best, it's a fairly hefty sacrifice for the sake of other benefits the city has to offer.

Strolling around midtown Manhattan, I was struck by how many of the cars on the street were yellow taxis. Apparently there is no official figure for the percentage of New York traffic constituted by taxis, but my impression was that it must be more than fifty percent, especially if one includes cars that provide ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. According to New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission, about 20,000 of the city's 65,000 vehicles for hire are Ubers.

The rapid rise of Uber (which appeared in New York in 2011) and similar services obviously threatens the traditional taxi system along with all the drivers and support personnel it employs. Critics point to the possibility of dangerous or incompetent drivers, poorly maintained vehicles, and the fact that Uber drivers, being technically self-employed (in the US, at least), receive no benefits from the Uber company. Defenders of Uber argue that it makes taxis more widely available at times of peak demand and to previously underserved communities. It makes going by taxi simpler, quicker, and cheaper (at least when “surge pricing” isn't in effect). And since Uber drivers don't cruise around looking for business, it is also held to relieve congestion.

So, you may be asking, how do the Uber wars and the problem of congestion in New York City have anything to do with the ascendency of the narcissistic autocrat Donald Trump to the presidency? For surely, that event, and its unpredictable consequences for America and the world, are the pressing concerns of the day. That is what is on every thinking person's mind right now. By comparison, traffic congestion and taxis are right up there with dog poop on the sidewalk in terms of their relative political importance.

Well, I see a connection. Trump's electoral college victory clearly owed something to the anxiety, and bitterness of many people in communities that have suffered economic stagnation or decline. The basic economic problem afflicting these communities is the lack of decent paying jobs. And notwithstanding all the talk about immigrants and faulty trade agreements, one obvious cause of this problem is the continual replacement of human beings in the work place by machines. One naturally thinks here of automated factories, but perhaps the most dramatic example of this has been in agriculture. In 1790, over 90% of the workforce in the US worked in agriculture; by 2000 the figure was less than 1.4%.[1]Yet the output produced is much greater now, and each worker is hundreds of times more productive than two centuries ago.

Over 150,000 people in New York currently make a living driving taxis of one sort or another. But looming on the horizon is a new technology that promises–or from their point of view threatens–to put them out of work: namely, driverless cars. In fact this technology has already come fully into view and is being tested in places like Pittsburgh and Singapore.

Once the technology has been perfected, the benefits of driverless taxis are evident: they should be safer, cheaper, and faster. Integrated with traffic control software and up-to-the- moment information, and free from the indecision and pointless lane-swapping characteristic of carbon-based drivers, they should also greatly reduce congestion. The costs are equally obvious: the lovely tradition of interesting conversations between cab drivers and passengers will wither; and a lot of people will need to find another way to make a living.

Of course, once driverless cars become normal, people may prefer to own one rather than use driverless taxis. After all, if you're not needed at the wheel, you can equally well sleep, read, watch TV, or have sex on the back seat regardless of who owns the vehicle. If that happens, congestion may become even worse than it is now. Who knows?

The success of Uber is a perfect example of technology and market forces combining to set in motion a juggernaut that threatens to destroy the status quo: in this case, traditional taxis. But the advent of driverless cars threatens to do the same to any form of human chauffeuring, including Uber. This is the familiar pattern of progress under capitalism. Technology and market forces are equally indifferent to the social disruption their confluence causes.

The people displaced by technology naturally enough protest and resist. The Luddites in early nineteenth century England destroyed the textile machines that were allowing factory owners to replace skilled craftsmen with less skilled workers. Conceivably, in days to come, unemployed taxi drivers might slash the tires of driverless cars. Historically, though, resistance to technological innovation has largely proved futile. Genies never go back into their bottles.

The paradox here is that new technologies and market “efficiencies” can both improve our quality of life in specific ways and, at the same time, bring about unwelcome social disruption. This is true in many spheres. Walmart offers us rock bottom prices and one-stop shopping, and kills Main Street in hundreds of small towns. Green energy means cleaner air, and unemployed coal miners.

An historical juncture seems to be approaching. The rate of technological innovation is now breathtakingly fast thanks largely to the great engines of research housed in universities and hi-tech corporations. Where the innovations are labor-saving, they carry the potential for further social problems on a large scale, high unemployment being perhaps the most obvious of these. A willful slowing down of innovation is not going to happen, given that there is money to be made. But at some point we need to somehow manage better than we have been doing the social impact of new technology.

Observing–and experiencing–the traffic in New York, my main reaction was to think: “This is dysfunctional! If it gets much worse, something will have to give, or be changed.” Just possibly events like Brexit and the election of Trump are harbingers of a coming moment when either the voters or the decision-makers in advanced capitalist countries come to recognize that the combination of technological innovation and the free market is creating such severe dysfunctionality in certain spheres that radical change is needed.

For conservatives, of course, the answer lies in less government and deregulated markets. But to my mind that's a bit like saying that the congestion in New York is caused by too many traffic regulations (such as the one that require cars to stop at red lights). What we need, rather, are policies that help us to manage the social impact of technological progress. A decent welfare state that allows people to work fewer hours without worrying about how to pay for basics such as decent housing, health care, or education, would be a start.

[1] Alexander Field, “Productivity,” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics[]