News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

September 28, 2020

Big Tech is the enemy of public transit

By Ahlad Reddy

To learn more about how we can build a working-class movement for sustainable public transit, join the Transit for the People and the Planet Town Hall, Saturday, Oct. 3rd from 1 to 2:30 p.m., hosted by Jovanka Beckles for AC Transit Board and East Bay DSA. Register at

Billionaires have been eroding public transit in America for decades. Longer commutes, increased traffic, degraded bus service, and climate change are all results of automotive, fossil fuel, and real estate interests that have prioritized profit over efficient and sustainable transit systems.

We cannot fix these problems by relying on the private tech industry to “innovate” our way out of this mess — a mess that they created in the first place. We must instead fight to build public transit systems that serve the needs of the working class and the planet. We can build that movement here in the East Bay by supporting Jovanka Beckles — an eco-socialist, community organizer, and former two-term Richmond City Councilmember running for the AC Transit Board of Directors.

Corporate Attacks on Public Transit

In the early 20th century, mass public transit was an indispensable part of the lives of urban Americans. Annual transit ridership totaled more than seventeen billion passenger rides in 1926, a figure only matched during the wartime economic conditions of WWII. Since then, transit ridership has slowly declined as the United States has turned toward automobiles. The automotive industry promoted this shift by lobbying the U.S. government to link highway funding to gasoline taxes and create the interstate highway system. Not only did these policies accelerate reliance on cars, they carved up communities of color (like the I-980 through West Oakland did, for instance) and allowed the transportation industry to become a principal driver of climate change. Transit alone produces 30% of carbon emissions nationwide and 40% in California. 

It wasn’t just the auto industry that shaped public transit. In the Bay Area, wealthy CEOs formed the Bay Area Council and successfully lobbied for the creation of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART). The design and construction of BART primarily benefited commuters to San Francisco, as well as corporate job centers and wealthy real estate interests. Prioritizing BART construction over spending for bus operation, the passage of Prop. 13 — a California law that slashed property taxes and therefore revenues for local governments — and steep cuts in federal subsidies for transit added up to a steady assault on the bus service that the working class depends on. 

More recently, the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has leveled attacks on public transit across America. In Little Rock, Ark., AFP defeated a ballot measure that would have funded expanded and more frequent bus service. Later in 2018, AFP successfully killed a once-popular mass transit referendum that would have expanded light rail and bus service in Nashville, Tenn. Even as commutes worsen and the climate crisis deepens, corporate executives continue to push for an unsustainable and destructive transportation system, 

Whose Revolution?

Now enter America’s new batch of techno-capitalists, whose “clean-tech revolution” promises to innovate our way out of the climate crisis and commuters’ hell using market forces. From electric cars to corporate ridesharing services, autonomous vehicles, and micromobility, these schemes have little to do with reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and sometimes increase them. And they often worsen exploitation of workers. 

Ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, which claim to reduce American’s reliance on private vehicles and to decrease carbon emissions, seem to be increasing emissions instead. Meanwhile, these companies shift costs onto drivers, who must pay for car maintenance, gasoline, and insurance. Uber and Lyft have also been able to deny their employees health insurance by classifying them as independent contractors. It’s no surprise, then, that Uber and Lyft threatened a capital strike in California following a judge’s ruling that they must reclassify their drivers as employees. What’s the incentive to treat drivers humanely when they are planning to replace them with autonomous vehicles, anyway? 

And who can forget the litany of micromobility startups like Lime, Bird, Jump, Spin, Scoot, Skip, and Razor, who often operate illegally and whose e-bikes and e-scooters litter our sidewalks and street corners? Besides creating accessibility issues for pedestrians and people with disabilities, these companies are incredibly wasteful. A study out of Louisville, Ky. found one brand of e-scooter had an average lifespan of only 28 days. On average, eco-scooters have the eco-footprint of a conventional car. Contrast London’s “Boris Bikes”, a zero-emission public bikeshare service that has grown in popularity and ridership since its inception.   

No one exemplifies the contradictions of clean capitalism as much as Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX.. Musk has been quite clear about his disdain for public transit. He seems to miss the point of mass transit when he says, “Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time.” 

Musk believes in hyper-individualized alternatives to fossil fuels — namely, Tesla vehicles, Tesla home batteries, and Tesla rooftop solar panels. This approach intensifies the class divide between people who can afford “green” technology and those who cannot. But also, mining the raw materials required to produce these consumer products raises a host of environmental concerns, and requires extreme exploitation of natural resources and foreign labor. 

Ironically, one of Musk’s most hyped inventions, the Hyperloop, a theoretical magnetic levitation train system that would operate within vacuum tubes and was dubbed the “Fifth Mode of Transport,” was never actually meant to be built. It was a media ploy to kill high-speed rail in California.

Even more bizarre is Musk’s Boring Company, a venture that originally started as a joke he made on Twitter while frustrated with Los Angeles traffic. One of the company’s first plans was to create a series of traffic tunnels from LAX to Westwood, conveniently passing by SpaceX headquarters and his Bel Air properties. Musk’s plans shifted to something more resembling mass transit — 16-person “electric sleds,” which would travel through these tunnels at 120mph or more — but as of this year, the designs have reverted back to tunnels for Teslas. Along with his union-busting, his firing of employees who felt unsafe returning to work during a global pandemic, and his multi-billion dollar compensation package tied to wildly speculative market valuations, Musk is more brazen capitalist super-villain than environmentalist innovator.

Building Transit for the Working Class

That is not to say that technology and innovation cannot be part of our transit future. They must play a role if we wish to bring an end to the climate crisis and provide transit as a universal right. However, that technology needs to be guided by a working-class movement, fighting for the transit needs of ordinary people. That is why we need to elect movement leaders like Jovanka Beckles, the democratic socialist candidate for AC Transit Board in Ward 1.

Beckles is fighting on a platform of “expanded, fare-free service and a rapid transition to a zero-emission fleet, funded by taxes on corporations and the super-rich.” It is a campaign that is born out of class struggle: ATU 192, the union that represents bus drivers and mechanics in the East Bay, asked Beckles to run during the current national crisis in public-transit funding and safety.

A fare-free system would disproportionately help low-income communities and people of color who pay a larger percentage of their income on transportation than the wealthy. Combined with other initiatives like expanded service and bus-only lanes, a well-funded public transit system can reduce the incentive to drive cars, decrease traffic and commute times, and reduce the biggest source of climate-disrupting gases. 

Our technocratic capitalist overlords cannot solve the systemic problems they themselves created. Let’s elect candidates like Jovanka Beckles and build a movement to win a transit system for the people.