Skip Navigation

BPR Interviews: Greg Shill on the Dominance of the Car

Gregory H. Shill is a law professor at the University of Iowa College of Law.
His recent work, including Should Law Subsidize Driving? (forthcoming in the NYU Law Review), has focused on transportation law and policy. Over the summer, he published an article in The Atlantic,
Americans Shouldn’t Have to Drive, but the Law Insists on It, detailing the ways in which the US legal system made driving the norm. 

Nick: I find it hard to imagine cities without the car infrastructure that they do. Reading your work, I wondered: Should we think of the dominance of cars as a mode of city transportation as a highly contingent historical fact?

Greg: It definitely wasn’t inevitable. It was highly contested at the time. Peter Norton, a historian at UVA wrote a book called Fighting Traffic where he talks about the evolution of the purpose of the streets. Today we think of them as corridors for fast-moving vehicles. Norton shows that they were previously understood as a public space: Children would play; vendors would set up shop; people would walk. There were still sidewalks, but it was also not only lawful but socially acceptable to linger in the street. So that change was not inevitable but rather was a political choice. 

Nick: Do you have a sense of what US cities would look like had cars not been subsidized as they have?

Greg: Let me suggest a slightly different way of looking at it. Subsidizing cars served elite groups and powerful industry players such as car companies, oil companies, tire and rubber industry, trucking, road construction. They banded together in the 1920s and under the banner of “motordom,” in opposition to the popular backlash against cars that was forming at the time. They managed to enact a number of laws to increase funding for roads, keep roads free, and also change laws to make the landscape more hostile for anybody outside of the car. So, there’s no question that if we had kept transit support at high levels and had not widened roads and invested trillions of dollars in highways and other subsidies, both fiscal and legal, that we would be in a different scenario now.

You can find evidence for that proposition in many different places. In Paris, for example, 60% of people owned cars in 2001. But the ownership rate is now down to 35%. It is true that Paris has a more extensive subway system than any U.S. city and it’s a lot more dense than most U.S. cities, but that was also true in 2001. So there are a lot of policy levers that can be used to change decision making at the margin. I think what we’ve seen in a lot of these experiments is that the margin is actually quite wide. People’s preferences are not written in stone and they will respond to incentives.

The challenge in many places, especially in the U.S., is that the built environment is not dense enough to simply eradicate cars overnight, even if that were the goal. But, by adding more transit options, adding more walking infrastructure in big cities (some parts of big cities in the U.S. don’t even have sidewalks), and legalizing the construction of homes that are not single-family homes, we could make a lot of progress. 

Right now, it’s illegal to build multifamily dwellings in most of San Francisco, many places in New York City, virtually all of Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts, among many other places due to current zoning laws. So there are a number of things that need to be undone and also we must actively invest in transit and walking and biking infrastructure. 

Nick: Speaking of the lack of density in many of our current built environments, how closely do you think that car subsidy issues are tied to other urban policy issues like the housing crisis? Do you think that we need to change the policies on both in tandem to fix this situation?

Greg: It depends on the results you seek. As I see it, there are three major costs to car dependency: public health, climate change, and the degradation of quality of life and urban form. 

In the category of public health, we have 35 to 40,000 car crash deaths a year. We also have 53,000 deaths from car emissions. A large number of those are not from tailpipe conditions. They’re from a particulate matter, PM 2.5 and PM 10 in particular, which is aerosolized by brake pads and tire wear. It can enter into our hearts and lungs. PM causes problems from cancer to asthma to a reduction in brain function. It’s a big problem that switching to electric vehicles, for example, would not solve. 

Though perhaps the detrimental effects to public health and climate change could be reduced, even if we were to develop some sort of magic want to make cars carbon neutral and to eliminate crash deaths, we would still live in a world where you couldn’t really cross the street as we have redesigned the world for the car. There’s a great quote from a Dutch intellectual “In the 20th century, we made it possible to go to the moon, but impossible to cross the street.” To fix problems like that, we do need to also be addressing a wider range of urban issues, foremost of which is our lack of density.

Nick: Part of your critique seems to be that these three costs you identify — public health, climate change, and quality of life — are externalities not incorporated into the price of driving. Moreover, driving is further subsidized by other laws. So, if we stopped subsidizing cars and internalized the full range of externalities of driving into the price, would that be satisfactory to you? Or, do you think there are additional problems even after that?

Greg: I don’t think we’re close to being there, but it’s an important question. It used to be legal to smoke in restaurants and bars. Eventually, for health reasons, smoking was banned outright in those places. We also increased taxes on cigarettes at the same time. Right now, we don’t have a “non-smoking” area in the city, in terms of driving. You can drive basically anywhere in the city, even in areas that are very densely built up with tens of thousands of pedestrians on the streets any given hour, Midtown Manhattan for example. We allow cars there just like we allow them on Highway 95. I think that’s a decision that’s worth revisiting. 

There are some places where we just shouldn’t subject people to secondhand driving. By analogy, Bill Gates can’t smoke in the hospital even if he’s willing to pay $1 billion for the privilege. There is just a “no smoking” rule. You could imagine a given hospital being tempted to take the money but basically we don’t have a system where you can smoke if you pay enough money in a hospital. We have a system where you’re just not allowed to smoke in the hospital flat out. That’s a model that we should be thinking about for certain areas. 

Nick: Could there be opportunities to introduce Coasean Bargaining in these circumstances?

Greg: Coasean bargaining implies that an entitlement is located on one side to begin with. Here I think the identity of the rights holder is a little less clear. It’s entirely a construction of law. So, when the car was introduced in the early 20th century, it was viewed as an intruder, a killing machine. There were all sorts of names used against it. There were sensationalistic cartoons on the front page of the New York Times, no less, denouncing them. That reflected both popular revulsion at joyriders wantonly killing children in city streets with their cars as well as the fact that the streets were a public place.

I think what happened with the car companies and their allies managed to change the rules and also change the system under which the rules were applied. So now we have a manifestly insincere system of traffic rules where virtually nobody will get a ticket for going say one mile an hour over the speed limit, even when the speed limit is clearly posted. We have a whole system that doesn’t take these rules and rights seriously. So the idea of bargaining around those rights, which in the first place are created by the state not by say contractual relations or property rights, is not obviously the right framework overall.

But, I do think that there are opportunities for the market to help identify people who are willing to pay a higher price for what they currently get for a free or discounted price, and then allocate that money to productive purposes, just like we would do with the carbon tax. 

Nick: You mentioned congestion pricing. How important do you see introducing congestion pricing as a proximate solution in your agenda?

Greg: I think there is a policy answer and a politics answer to that, so let me try to split your question in two. If the question is, “Should we prioritize congestion pricing because it will have a significant policy impact?” The answer is yes. We have evidence from London, Stockholm, Oslo, Singapore, and a few other places that have tried it that congestion pricing raises revenue which can be used to improve transit. It also reduces driving, pollution, traffic collisions, and death. The policy payoff is very high.

On the politics side, we also know that while before it is implemented is highly unpopular, once it is implemented it gains popularity because people see the benefits. Still, the politics of charging people to enter the city center, especially in this country, are difficult. New York is going to be experimenting with it, as are a few other cities. But the irony here is that there are lots of steps that cities can take within their legal power to reduce driving that don’t require the kind of interaction with the state government that may be necessary in some cases. The 14th street busway in New York is one example of that. I would love to see more creative thinking along those lines, especially in big dense cities that can experiment and see results right away.

Nick: How does ridesharing fit into this discussions? 

Greg: I think we’ll look back on ridesharing as the straw that broke the camel’s back. There’s a growing number of studies that show that both congestion and traffic fatalities have increased as a result of it. Uber and Lyft don’t even dispute those findings, though they do dispute some of the methodology yielding slightly different results. But, there’s broad agreement that ride-sharing has increased vehicle miles. Traffic has increased and with it pollution and deaths. 

A lot of that is due to what’s called deadheading, when a driver is driving around looking for a fare, or going from the end of one fare to the start of another or back home. So there’s a lot of additional driving involved in ride-hailing. I think ride hailing can be a convenient solution for an individual, but the social consequences have been quite bad. The one upshot might be that it has made young people less intent on car ownership, so they do not have the same romanticization of the car that older generations have.

Nick: When people discuss the big infrastructure projects of the late 20th century, like the building of the interstate and other pieces of large scale automobile infrastructure, they seem to view them as integral to American economic growth. Do you think there were important gains from them when compared to their next-best alternatives?

Greg: I don’t think that they were better than the alternatives, no. The best alternatives would’ve been to invest in rail and streetcar networks, basically the same things we were doing before World War II. An interesting thing that I’m not sure people are aware of is that after WWII, when the U.S. started investing massively in highway building, European countries did as well. There was suburbanization in Europe as well as in the U.S., and neglect of public transit in both places. I don’t want to make it sound like there was a conspiracy as I don’t think that’s quite accurate, but there was coordinated action by powerful interests to promote car infrastructure and, ultimately, car dependency. That is not to suggest the car didn’t have intrinsic appeal at the time. After all, you could get around wherever you wanted, whenever, at a low cost. And that’s intrinsically appealing to people. It’s just that, on mass, there is a collective action problem. Once everybody’s doing that, suddenly none of us can get around conveniently. 

After Europe did the same thing for about 30 years, they changed course. In the 70s, they started to invest in high-speed rail infrastructure, other forms of public transportation. They began to get a better understanding of the costs of mass car ownership. Essentially, the best available alternatives in the 50s were fantastic then and they are still fantastic today.

Nick: Are there different considerations in this discussion between the cities in the Northeast that were largely built before the introduction of cars and the Sunbelt cities that were largely built around automobile infrastructures? 

Greg: There are very few cities in this country where the city itself is completely built around the car. 

Nick: Houston?

Greg: To a degree, but even Houston has walkable neighborhoods. I lived in Houston for a year and it has a relatively compact downtown.

Other cities, too, that seem to be built for cars were not really. Los Angeles, for example, once had the most extensive streetcar network in the world. There was a regional rail in Ohio called the Ohio Electric Railway that was frequent and reliable. It could get you all around the state very efficiently. That was in the early 1900s. 

Where I live, Iowa City, which is a college town of about 75,000, has a compact downtown and it’s relatively walkable, even though most people own cars and drive. Detroit also had an extensive streetcar network. Buffalo did too. 

Most of the cities I just mentioned are not Sunbelt cities. I think Phoenix, Las Vegas, are places that will be expensive and time consuming to retrofit to a less car-dominated infrastructure arrangement. But, we have to try. 

I think the part of your question is, what is the group of U.S. cities that could, with some policy adjustments, be plausible for more people to not depend on cars, or even just go from a two-car household to a one-car household or carpool more?

I think that group is pretty big. It would include places like New York, San Francisco, Boston, the usual coastal suspects. But, it could also include a lot of Midwestern cities and even some cities in the South and West that we intuitively associated with the car like Los Angeles. Atlanta has a lot of good urbanism. And, even though the Sunbelt cities will take longer, there are still proximate solutions they can enact like high-speed bus routes, as we have actually seen in Houston.

Nick: If there were people reading this that felt compelled to take up this cause, where would you tell them to begin? 

Greg: The solutions really are political. There’s very little that personal action can do because the system creates problems requiring joint action. I would say get involved in local politics, specifically join your local walk or bike advocacy organization. They exist in this surprising number of places, not just in big cities. They often are engaged with local leaders and will know who’s good on what issues and what the important council meetings or community board meetings to attend are. Unfortunately, it’s a situation where bad decisions were made long before any of your readers were born. It’s going to take a concerted effort to change