When changes to traffic laws were approved in my city recently
— little things like requiring drivers to give more space to cyclists when passing — it was heralded as a step forward for bike friendliness.
But after reading a fascinating new paper, my enthusiasm for these new laws feels dwarfed by a realization that these are but tiny changes in a massive system that has rigged society toward automobile supremacy.
That may sound like hyperbole, but only if you haven’t read the paper. It was written by Gregory Shill, a law professor at the University of Iowa, titled Should Law Subsidize Driving? Basically, it’s an examination of the myriad ways that our laws
There has long been discussion about the things that encourage automobile use, from the ways we’ve build our suburban cities to the design of our houses. But I’ve rarely seen an argument this comprehensive detailing how our legal system subsidises driving as well.
“These subsidies lower the price of driving by comprehensively re-assigning its costs to non-drivers and society at large,” Shill writes in the paper. “They are found in every field of law, from traffic law to land use regulation to tax, tort, and environmental law.”
By “subsidizing” driving, Shill is looking at the myriad ways our legal system
He examines the ways we have spread the costs of driving, such as road construction, across all of society, making driving seem free while, at the same time, governments starve public transit and treat it as a “welfare” system. “On 99.7% of lane miles in America,” he writes, “the cost to the driver is zero and the marginal cost is zero, because policymakers socialized the costs across the entire population.” But driving is not free. He puts the costs of subsidising driving at “$100 billion, or between $1,012 and $1,488 per household per year (in the U.S.).”
Our laws also favour motor vehicles in the way we zone and use land. Zoning rules encourage low-density housing that favours autocentric lifestyles. Parking requirements assign public space to car storage. “A thousand local-level choices … took billions of acres of public space along streets—especially scarce, tree-lined, urban spaces where children played in safety—and redefined them as places to used exclusively for the passive storage of motor vehicles.”
Even the legal language we use in our transportation system favours automobiles, from calling collisions “accidents” to describing a person crossing a public road as a “jaywalker.”
Lax enforcement of traffic rules, environmental laws that absurdly encourage motor vehicle use, pollution restrictions that externalize hidden costs onto all of society, tepid prosecution of motor-vehicle crimes contrary to written statutes — when compiled, the myriad ways the legal system encourages automobile use is staggering.
None of that would be a problem if motor-vehicle use was benign. And perhaps it once was. But this system has, not surprisingly, evolved alongside the legal system that supports it to a point where the balance is off. And it’s destructive.
I don’t take this as a war-against-cars legal rant. There’s a place for automobiles in modern life, obviously. But we often fail to see, not only the destructive properties of the transportation system we’ve
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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.