Image by Fb78 licensed under Creative Commons.

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.

Plus, laws don’t make catching speeders easy. Speed cameras are only legal in 15 states.

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. 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.

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.

Besides contributing to pollution, these policies have bad outcomes for vulnerable road users.

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.”

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.

6. Tax subsidies favor driving

Plus, work places routinely offer free parking as a perk.

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.

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.”

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?

Julie Strupp is Greater Greater Washington's Managing Editor. She's written for DCist, Washingtonian, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and others. You can usually find her sparring with her judo club, pedaling around the city, or hanging out on her Columbia Heights stoop.