Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars?

Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk

By Kristine Kowalchuk

by James Wilt
Between the Lines
2020/$27.95/293 pp.

In his debut book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars?, James Wilt, a former Calgary journalist now based in Winnipeg, systematically dismantles every conceivable anti-public-transit excuse. Drawing on more than 40 interviews with academics, transit planners and community activists, he largely focuses on how three recent “revolutions”—electric cars, private ride sharing companies and autonomous vehicles—are merely a continuation of the corporate manufacturing of car culture (which he terms “automobility”). Not only will these technologies not improve mobility, he argues, they actually increase congestion, deepen inequality, throw existing public transit into crisis and distract us from the real solution—which is, as Wilt persuasively argues with numerous examples, simply a properly funded, well-planned public transit system.

Countering politicians’ complaint that “public transit costs too much,” Wilt points to the high price of automobility: the costs to car owners (vehicle, fuel, insurance, maintenance, parking), plus costs we all pay (whether we own a vehicle or not) for road construction and maintenance; healthcare costs related to collisions, poor air quality, and isolation; and environmental costs due to pollution and land loss. Wilt reveals data showing that in Vancouver, for every $1 a car owner paid to drive, society paid $9.20. In comparison, riding the bus cost society $1.50, while cycling cost 8 cents, and walking 1 cent. This basic math is often disregarded by governments at all levels, including Alberta’s UCP government, which recently included new highway-building as part of its economic stimulus plan.

The automobility “revolutions” also cause harm to equality and democracy. Wilt outlines how private ride-sharing endangers women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities and the elderly; exacerbates poverty; and exploits drivers and undermines worker rights. For example, Uber obligates drivers to be independent contractors rather than employees, meaning drivers have to pay all costs, and minimum wage and overtime laws don’t apply to them (some Uber drivers make so little income, they live in their cars). Wilt also details how autonomous vehicles risk our privacy by collecting and sharing personal data. Surveillance in all transit, he points out, reflects and reinforces systemic racism, disproportionately targeting poor people and people of colour.

Unfortunately, many people (including city councillors) have been fooled by the lobbying and marketing of Uber and Elon Musk—and also by Lime and Bird, whose scooters now clutter sidewalks in Edmonton and Calgary—into thinking we can rely on private ownership of transit. We cannot, and to this point Wilt pays good attention to buses, whose affordability avoids the public–private ownership issues plaguing even LRT. Wilt might, however, have noted that their affordability also enables transit implementation all at once as a system—which is necessary for public transit to actually work—rather than piecemeal construction. For instance, the Belgian city of Ghent changed its transportation system literally overnight; the result: car use fell, public transit use and cycling rose, congestion was alleviated, local business increased, noise levels dropped and air quality improved. Edmonton and Calgary could undertake similar overnight transformations, introducing truly convenient bus systems offering frequency, wide coverage, accessibility, heated main shelters and free fare. Who wouldn’t take the bus then? And we too could enjoy healthy, livable cities. We could also improve buses between our cities—why wait for expensive rail?

As Wilt’s book makes clear, poor public transit is a political choice. We can’t afford not to implement public transit right, and right away.

Kristine Kowalchuk is an instructor at NAIT and a co-founder of Edmontonians for Responsible Urban Public Transit (ERUPT).

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