“Today everyone who values cities is disturbed by automobiles,” wrote Jane Jacobs in her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “At present public transportation languishes, but not from a lack of potential technical improvement.” That Jacobs wrote this close to 60 years ago is remarkable given that a reading of James Wilt’s new book about the failure of urban planners to capitalize on the promise of efficient and accessible public transportation floats many of the same arguments. In some ways, the picture Wilt paints indicates that we haven’t really come all that far since 1961.
Some things, of course, have changed. In her wildest imaginings, Jacobs could probably not have anticipated the promise of driverless cars, and she would have been rendered apoplectic by the 21st-century phenomenon of for-profit ride-sharing and ride-hailing services. Wilt identifies three technological revolutions – electric cars, the appearance of app-based companies such as Uber and Lyft, and the promise of autonomous vehicles – that “are widely proclaimed as the inevitable way of the future” but that are simultaneously “sapping our ability to plan public transportation for the public good.”
Wilt’s argument, laid out in detail with reference to multiple studies and white papers from locations across North America, is that the three revolutions are a chimera, their promises empty, and their vision underwritten by capitalist imperatives that don’t have the collective good at heart. In Wilt’s view, any plan for the future that elevates individual automobiles over a robust system of public transit is not desirable and should be curtailed in favour of improving existing forms of mass transportation and making them more accessible to a broader range of people.
The author does a good job of dismantling the common arguments in favour of embracing new automobile technology and policy. While he admits that electric cars are more environmentally friendly than their gas-guzzling counterparts, Wilt points out that they do not have a net-neutral impact on the environment and that public transportation systems already in place are capable of moving greater numbers of people with more efficiency and less negative impact on the environment. Similarly, as density in urban areas continues to increase, public transit provides more flexible and useful opportunities to mitigate congestion and health and safety risks on city streets.
Rapidly increasing urban density accounts for one area in which Wilt’s argument is underserved. Very little focus is paid in the book to cities that are growing exponentially, increasing density by packing people into condos and skyscrapers, while ignoring a concomitant increase in capacity with regard to public transit. In Toronto, for example, a downtown relief line has been proposed to eliminate problems of overcrowding on the subway, but the proposal – a political football passed back and forth for years – was shelved in 2019 when the provincial Progressive Conservatives decided to replace it with plans for an entirely different dedicated subway line.
Tackling problems not just of volume but capacity, along with finding money for repairs to decaying infrastructure, outdated vehicles that are prone to breaking down, and upgrading technology in the areas of signalling and surface-route management will require a combination of government money and political will, both of which appear to be in short supply in ailing metropolitan areas like Toronto and New York.
For his part, Wilt seems more invested in Marxist ideas like rendering public transit free for all riders, a utopian vision that is pleasant to contemplate but is in reality a non-starter. His critique of public transit’s lack of accessibility for differently abled passengers and its danger to certain definable segments of the population – women, trans passengers, Blacks, Muslims – is generally stronger, as is his appraisal of the kinds of racial and income profiling that can occur when systems employ transit police or a fleet of fare inspectors endowed with enormous power to target already marginalized groups or individuals.
The basic assertions in Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? are solid and for the most part unimpeachable. If Wilt had adopted a more reasonable view of what might be possible in the short and medium terms, rather than allowing his material to stray into ruminations that would prove unfeasible or politically unachievable, his book would have been rendered that much more persuasive.