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“Code is the New Concrete”: Temporalities of the Platform Turn in Mobility Infrastructure

Authors: John Stehlin*, University of North Carolina - Greensboro
Topics: Urban Geography, Economic Geography, Transportation Geography
Keywords: infrastructure, temporality, platform capitalism, transportation, micromobility
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

The emergence of smartphone-based digital transportation platforms has profoundly uneven implications for urban mobility. In particular, the political-economic and sociotechnical features of these platforms introduce a number of temporal disjunctures into the relationship between their operations and the physical and social infrastructure of urban space. First, such platforms promise, in various ways, completely “on-demand” mobility, which in turn depends on large quantities of both at-will labor and publicly accessible space to absorb the excess capacity that this ubiquity requires. From this perspective, therefore, the “on-demand” temporality of the app manifests as an “always-on” infrastructure. Second, the speed with which these platforms launch, mutate, and close conflicts with the mundane temporalities of the public infrastructural planning process, deterring more collaborative approaches to service provision. Finally, the uncertainty of the time horizon of financial sustainability—thus far delayed by seemingly inexhaustible venture capital reserves—raises doubts as to how platform firms will fit into the rhythms of everyday mobility in the long term. These features will be illustrated using examples from in-depth fieldwork conducted into public bicycle sharing systems in Austin, Oakland, and Philadelphia at a time of rapid disruption by “dockless” mobility platforms. This conjuncture, however, masks the broader structural similarities of these two forms of austerity infrastructure, whose apparent novelty flourishes in the interstices of a slower, more general crisis of automobility and mass transport alike.

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