On Google Buses, Gentrification, and Sustainability

This protest is a flashpoint that indicating a major tension between social justice and environmental sustainability.

A week ago, protesters appeared outside the home of Anthony Levandowski; a Google engineer who has been a prominent figure in their self-driving car project. The protesters’ manifesto, which mentions issues ranging from the NSA and the Military-Industrial complex to gentrification, is clear on the protesters’ radical goals: “All of Google’s employees should be prevented from getting to work. All surveillance infrastructure should be destroyed. No luxury condos should be built. No one should be displaced”. After picketing Levandowski’s house for a while, they moved on to briefly blockade a bus full of commuting Google employees.

These protesters might be amateurish (The Examiner was unable to find any media contacts) and unreasonable, but we shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand: there are a lot of substantive issues on which we can criticize Google. In particular, the protesters bring up an interesting and very difficult point when they discuss gentrification, which has been a major local controversy in the Bay Area, exacerbated by the presence of Google and other high-tech firms nearby. These local clashes in San Francisco are, I think, a microcosm of a much larger relationship between sustainability, technological change, and gentrification that I don’t think is receiving nearly the critical attention it deserves. I’m going to try and briefly outline that tension in this post.

The blockade of the Google Bus that took place a week ago was not the first protest against the cushy, wi-fi equipped buses that tech companies use to shuttle workers between their suburban campuses and downtown. Frankly, I think we should be amazed and encouraged that such a thing exists. The fact that there is a large class of middle-class workers in a major American city that have been persuaded to commute into the suburbs by bus implies that there might be some hope for a more sustainable transportation future. In that sense, it’s rather unfortunate that such a development is meeting with opposition from the left, who should be supporting more sustainable transportation.

On the other hand, however, the protesters have a point. The buses have been driven in a highly inconsiderate manner: idling at public bus stops, blocking in city buses. Obviously this has to change: no private company has any right to disrupt public transport infrastructure for its own convenience. But surely it’s possible to curb these abuses without throwing the sustainable transportation baby out with the bathwater. Indeed, the city has introduced legislation to do just that. But judging from the manifesto linked above, the grievances about the buses go far beyond traffic snarls and link up to bigger concerns about the gentrification of downtown neighbourhoods by wealthy tech employees.

The problem with this line of argument is that it ignores the fact that the present distribution of people between cities and suburbs is the product of, and dependent on, an unsustainable and unjust transportation system based around the ownership of private cars. This system, if allowed to continue, will eventually contribute to massive global environmental destruction and human suffering. Some evidence suggests that it is already doing so. While the ideal of the suburbs existed before the invention of the car, it was private cars that first allowed its large-scale realisation for the middle class. The resulting flight of the privileged away from downtowns has been a major force in the shaping of urban spaces which continued to be inhabited by underprivileged and oppressed classes that the fleeing suburbanites left behind.

Cars are therefore closely wedded to the spatial fabric of every city in the developed world; not just in terms of layout and infrastructure, but also in terms of the human makeup of both urban and communities. And here we run into a problem. Because if we reduce our dependence on cars (as we should), then that spatial fabric is going to change again. And that is going to mean that people get displaced. To put it more bluntly: If we want to wean ourselves off our current horrendously unsustainable transportation sysem, then we are going to have to accept some level of gentrification.

Please don’t mistake me for thinking this is a good thing. Gentrification sucks. I’m too privileged to really understand what it means to be pushed out by gentrification, but a little bit of reading makes it clear that it is a process which causes a great deal of suffering. While that suffering should give us pause, however, it is not sufficient reason for us to abandon the project of re-densifying our urban environments. Road transportation accounts for a full 10% of global carbon emissions, and I don’t think that the farmer in Bangladesh who faces having her land flooded by the ocean will be very sympathetic when we tell her that we wanted to reduce our contribution to climate change, but we were uncomfortable with rich people moving back into cities.

The solution to this tension, I think, lies in an explicit recognition of the disruption that will go along with a transition to more sustainable economic and technological systems. If we recognize this, then we can take action, preferably led by inner-city residents, to cushion the blow. Hopefully then we can re-densify human environments while avoiding haphazard and destructive gentrification. I can’t  offer much in the way of policy suggestions to solve this tension, as I am neither a member of a marginalized urban community nor an urban planner. Undoubtedly such people are already doing much better work on the problem than I could.

But if you look at the bigger picture, it’s important to recognize this as an example of a major trap for progressives when it comes to issues of sustainability. Transitioning to a sustainable economy will  mean massive disruptions to the social, technological, economic, and political status quo, these disruptions will inconvenience people, not all of whom will be oil magantes. It is regrettable but inevitable that some marginalized communities will be caught up in the changes that we need to make. We need to listen to these people and act on their requests, but we also can’t block a transition to sustainability on their account alone. Otherwise we risk letting local injustices take precedence over global ones.