In the United States, motor vehicles are now the leading killer of children and the top producers of greenhouse gases. They rack up trillions of dollars in direct and indirect costs annually, and the most vulnerable—children, the poor, and people of color or with disabilities—pay the steepest price. The appeal of cars’ convenience and the lack of meaningful alternatives has created a public health catastrophe.
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 U.S. is car-dependent by choice. But it is also car-dependent by law.
This Article conceptualizes this problem, and offers a way out. It begins by identifying a submerged, disconnected system of rules that furnish indirect yet extravagant subsidies to driving. These subsidies lower the price of driving by comprehensively reassigning its costs to non-drivers and society at large. They are found in every field of law, from traffic law to land use regulation to tax, tort, and environmental law. Law’s role is not primary, and at times it is even constructive. But where it is destructive, it is uniquely so: law not only inflames a public health emergency but legitimizes it, extending its longevity.
The Article urges a teardown of this regime. It also calls for a basic reorientation of relevant law towards consensus social priorities, such as health, prosperity, and equity.
March 1, 2019