America is terrible at building things. Let's fix that, starting with transportation
Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen — best known for co-founding web browser company Netscape as well as his prediction that "software is eating the world" — published a call to action last weekend that was decidedly not about software.
On his firm's blog, he declared that we're in this public health crisis because of America's inability to build things, and that it's now "time to build," to get the U.S. out of its current struggling pandemic state. We should build things such as factories, housing, transportation, energy, education and medical equipment, Andreessen says.
To his call to action, I say, hear hear! Yes, yes and more yes! And, of course, I'd also like to add several caveats:
1. Build sustainable, equitable transportation: Andreessen mentions transportation projects in his column such as high-speed rail, supersonic aircraft, delivery drones, monorail, hyperloop and even flying cars. These are fun-sounding transportation options. What we actually need to fund is much more basic, sustainable and equitable transportation infrastructure.
Transportation projects that should be high on the priority list in the post-pandemic buildout include electric vehicle charging infrastructure, safe and rapid public transit, zero-emission buses and trucks, protected lanes for bicycles and micromobility services, and incentives for passenger electric vehicles. We don't need the hyperloop or flying cars — we need to help people get to their jobs, grocery stores and neighborhoods in a safe, swift and sustainable way.
Public transit in a reopening of America will need more money than ever before to combat very real health concerns, crippled transit fares and a massive depression. That won't come from the tech industry, capitalism or Silicon Valley. Uber is Silicon Valley's version of public transit.
2. Silicon Valley has been really bad at this: An irony that I'm sure was not lost on Andreessen is that venture capitalists have been mostly awful at building "hard tech," or investments that lead to manufacturing factories and infrastructure. Most of Silicon Valley was terrible at the first wave of cleantech, which squandered mega-money in novel but misplaced solar panel and electric car factories and biofuel plants.
There's been a new burgeoning wave of "climate tech" coming, but many VCs dabbling in this field seem to be sticking to the software-only version. Will the average Sand Hill Road investor follow Andreessen's marshaling and get into things such as funding housing, deploying nuclear plants or building high-speed rail? No. And they probably shouldn't.
3. Unbridled capitalism doesn't control many of these markets: To get things built in sectors such as housing, transportation and energy, you need things beyond great technology and strategic go-to-market strategies. You need laborious, non-tech dirty-work such as lobbying, aggressive new policies that remove roadblocks, and community-building, which can combat things such as NIMBYism.
Ask a city transportation planner how hard it is to get just a basic protected bike lane built in certain American cities. Check in with California Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) on how hard (and so far not possible) it's been to get a housing density bill passed in California. These are not problems that can be easily solved by tech.
Andreessen rightly notes: "The problem is inertia. We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things." NIMBY is maintaining inertia.