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What Elevators, Skyscrapers and Labor Can Tell Us About Self-Driving Cars

In 2021, it’s hard to imagine a big city without skyscrapers. And even harder to imagine one without automatic elevators. 

Yet not long ago, at the beginning of the 20th century, most elevators were operated by people. This was true even as technology advanced to produce all the different pieces necessary for elevators to work on their own — from brakes to buttons to motorized sliding doors. 

The transformation from cities filled primarily with manually operated elevators to one with automatic elevators didn’t happen overnight, instead, it took decades and faced pushback from elevator operators. The true, fascinating story of how automatic elevators came to dominate may tell us a lot about the adoption of autonomous vehicle technology, as attorney and policy advisor Henry Greenidge points out on the latest episode of the No Parking Podcast. 

Greenidge is the Director of Partnerships & Head of Public Affairs at mobility company REEF Technology and a Fellow-in-Residence at the New York University’s McSilver Institute. He’s an expert on the intersection of transportation, technology and society — having worked in senior leadership positions for the New York City Department of Transportation and the NYC Mayor’s Office. 

He joins No Parking host Alex Roy to discuss the issues involved in the early automatic elevator industry (which Roy has also written about), from an organized labor strike by elevator operators in New York City circa 1945 to establishing trust in novel and unfamiliar technologies.

As Greenidge points out, “It wasn’t until the 1970s where you had this sharp drop-off in elevator operators, and that again, because of escalators, because of advancements in the technology, because building owners, along with the elevator manufacturers, put in place pieces of technology to help build the trust. They put in telephones in elevators so that if you got stuck, there was someone that you could talk to. There were speakers that emitted music, there were lights, there were things that made people feel more comfortable, which led the way to more automated elevators.”

As a child in New York City, Greenidge recalls seeing elevator operators at Macy’s and other stores and being impressed with their skills, professionalism, and big personalities.

However, as Roy and Greenidge further discuss, the automatic elevator industry created even more work opportunities in terms of elevator repair, maintenance, and all the new electronics such as lights and music that went into them. 

Greenidge also talks about how new technology like autonomous vehicles can help to rectify some of the historic inequalities in transportation access — such as the “transit deserts” in certain urban neighborhoods, often lower-income and consisting of primarily non-white residents, where public transit options are limited or nonexistent. 

“For me, what I looked at was the environment that we’re in and I didn’t see any other way to address some of the challenges expeditiously, than technology,” Greenidge says. “I realized that if I wanted to stay in transportation, the future to me was autonomous vehicles, and working on issues around climate change.”

Listen to the full discussion now and subscribe to No Parking for more insightful discussions on transportation, artificial intelligence, and technology — past, present, and future.

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