Automobile supremacy has been written into the legal fabric of the United States for the past century, as government and industry leaders choked public transit and encouraged personal automobiles instead. Recently, University of Iowa law professor Greg Shill wrote a paper detailing how US law subsidizes driving.
“Many of the automobile’s social costs originate in the individual preferences of consumers, but an overlooked amount is encouraged—indeed enforced—by law. Yes, the US is car-dependent by choice. But it is also car-dependent by law,” Shill writes. Eric Jaffe of Sidewalk Labs broke down some examples from Shill’s paper on Twitter.
1. It’s easy to speed in a car
Scooters and e-bikes often have built-in speed limits, but not cars.
2/ Calls for car companies to automatically limit top speeds have been defeated since 1920s, yet by definition, going that top speed would break speeding laws. Meanwhile, low-speed vehicle makers (e.g. e-scooters) are often required by law to restrict speed. (p5)— eric jaffe (@e_jaffe) August 15, 2019
Plus, laws don’t make catching speeders easy. Speed cameras are only legal in 15 states.
5/ Even among those 15 states, camera usage is often limited by law. Until 2019, NY state restricted use to NYC school zones, and even THEN only near 140 out of 2,300 zones, making it illegal to use a life-saving device in 94% of NYC (and 100% of upstate) school areas. (p11)— eric jaffe (@e_jaffe) August 15, 2019
2. It’s illegal to incentivize transit in some places
Transit improvements and infrastructure changes that would cause car delay are literally illegal in some jurisdictions.
3/ In some places, adding bus lanes, carpool lanes, or light rail is “expressly prohibited by law” or at least subject to legal assault. (pg5) That was long true in California under CEQA, which considered transit or crosswalks as environmentally damaging (!) because of car delay.— eric jaffe (@e_jaffe) August 15, 2019
3. Law enforcement frequently blames victims of car violence
In Montgomery County in 2018, local police called people who were hit and killed by drivers “lazy” for not being in the sidewalk, but this type of framing where the person hit is at fault isn’t an isolated incident. Mainstream media organizations frequently refer to all car crashes as “accidents,” implying that the driver isn’t responsible, and focus on the delay it will cause drivers.
6/ The FHWA traffic manual (MUTCD) does not require markings to define a crosswalk; the presence of an intersection creates one. Yet police will routinely note when a pedestrian was “not in a marked crosswalk,” a misunderstanding that insulates drivers from liability. (p19)— eric jaffe (@e_jaffe) August 15, 2019
4. Car-centric policies are good for the environment, says the car lobby
The car lobby has come up with all kinds of ways to get car-centric policies enshrined by law as somehow being better for the environment.
9/ Federal law makes funding for state energy conservation plans conditional on adopting rules that allow right turns on red. Yet there’s little evidence right turns on red reduce emissions, and lots of evidence connecting them with higher crash, injury, and death rates. (p37)— eric jaffe (@e_jaffe) August 15, 2019
Besides contributing to pollution, these policies have bad outcomes for vulnerable road users.
15/ No coincidence that the share of “light trucks” has soared from 20% in 1976 to 69% of market today. The upshot, of course, is that SUVs are much worse for pedestrian safety: you’re 3.4x more likely to be killed if hit by an SUV vs. a car. (p58)— eric jaffe (@e_jaffe) August 15, 2019
5. We devote massive amounts of money and space to free car storage
In most zoning codes, space for cars is written into requirements, which drives up the cost of housing and reduces space for housing and other amenities. This comes at the expense of transit. As Shill writes, “The decision to write blank checks for free roads while starving transit of resources has distorted the transportation market for generations.”
12/ Parking minimums significantly raise the cost of development in cities - regardless of whether a tenant wants or needs a space - adding 12.5-38% (!) to housing unit costs. One study put a parking spot at $200/month more in rent, and $43k more in condo asking price. (p51)— eric jaffe (@e_jaffe) August 15, 2019
Happily, while apartment buildings still include a “free” parking space with the cost of rent, there are efforts to “unbundle” parking from rent costs in DC. That way drivers have a better sense of the actual cost of storing their car, and people who don’t drive aren’t forced to subsidize the habit of people who do.
13/ DC’s zoning authority notes the need to protect semi-detached dwellings “from invasion by denser types of residential development” that might support transit or reduce car reliance. Terrible policy in general, and particularly scary language given recent events. (p54)— eric jaffe (@e_jaffe) August 15, 2019
6. Tax subsidies favor driving
Plus, work places routinely offer free parking as a perk.
18/ “Tax subsidies for commuting prioritize driving. Those who walk, bike, or carpool to work, and in some cases those who take transit, pay other people to drive to work.” (p70)— eric jaffe (@e_jaffe) August 15, 2019
7. Drivers can get away with murder
That’s not an exaggeration: The Freakonomics podcast called killing a pedestrian with a car the “perfect crime.” That’s because if you live in New York or many other places in the US, it’s rare for drivers to be punished for hitting and killing someone. Police officers often only hear the side of the driver, and as we mentioned above, they often favor drivers.
19/ US criminal law makes it very hard to find drivers liable in pedestrian / bike fatalities. Contra the Netherlands, where drivers are automatically assumed to be 50% liable if the victim is over 14, with the remaining 50% determined by fault. (p71)— eric jaffe (@e_jaffe) August 15, 2019
8. Legal penalties target people who take transit
Legal penalties tend to be more severe for people who take transit, even for arguably more minor infractions. That’s why decriminalizing fare evasion is an important step to undoing some of that “driver privilege.”
20/ “Ironically, delaying 50 bus passengers by temporarily parking in the bus lane is punishable by ticket, but boarding that same bus with an expired pass can trigger jail time.” (p74)— eric jaffe (@e_jaffe) August 15, 2019
So why does all this matter? As Shill writes, “motor vehicles are now the leading killer of children and the top producer of greenhouse gases. They rack up trillions of dollars in direct and indirect costs annually, and the most vulnerable—the elderly, the poor, people of color, and people with disabilities—pay the steepest price. The appeal of cars’ convenience and the lack of meaningful alternatives has created a public health catastrophe.”
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way! Some car-centric places have been retrofitted. For example, the part of the National Mall that used to hold a massive a parking lot now hosts a museum. Some places, like Tysons, are still working on it. Other times communities stop bad planning decisions, like the highway officials wanted to run through the Shaw neighborhood in DC.
Many other countries have built places centered around transit, bicycling, and walking. As the climate crisis worsens, we need to undo the subsidies and other privileges we’ve granted to cars and drivers, and replace them with systems that are better for the planet and all its people.
Readers: What did we miss? In what other ways does US law incentivize driving?