GObike News

July 12, 2019

How American Law Enforces Automobile Dependency

The paradox of transportation in the late 20th Century is that while it became possible to travel to the moon, it also became impossible, in many cases, to walk across the street. —Joell Vanderwagen

This quote opens a recent paper by Gregory H. Shill's, law professor at University of Iowa College of Law, on how American law, “not only inflames a public health crisis but legitimizes it, ensuring the continuing dominance of the car.”

The paper and subsequent summary article from The Atlantic and CityLab outline how our legal system squeezed out alternatives to driving in America.

Writes Shill in his white paper:

“American society is governed by automobile supremacy. This regime takes one of our lives every six minutes and costs us trillions of dollars a year. Yet, it is championed in some form by entire sectors of the economy and many consumers. The rest of us abide it, taking consolation in the enveloping comforts of the costly machines we find ourselves stuck in for hours each week—not because of our deeply felt preferences, but because an organized confederation of maximalists took away every other option generations before we were even born.”

Shill goes on in his Atlantic article:

“It’s no secret that American public policy throughout the 20th century endorsed the car—for instance, by building a massive network of urban and interstate highways at public expense. Less well understood is how the legal framework governing American life enforces dependency upon the automobile. To begin with, mundane road regulations embed automobile supremacy into federal, state, and local law. But inequities in traffic regulation are only the beginning. Land use law, criminal law, torts, insurance, vehicle safety regulations, even the tax code—all these sources of law provide rewards to cooperate with what has become the dominant transport mode and punishment for those who defy it."

So what’s the solution? Repeal all laws that codify driving subsidies for driving, according to the author. 

Writes Shill:  

“These laws are not the root cause of automobile supremacy, but they armor it in law and give it agency of its own. They lead police departments and media reports to blame vulnerable road users for their own deaths; enable reckless drivers to trigger the raising of speed limits by speeding; and even inspire environmentally conscious consumers to inadvertently generate more dangerous PM2.5 toxins because they have lowered their own cost of driving.”

 If you are interested, the entire white paper is well-worth the read.


How American Law Enforces Automobile Dependency