Cars Don’t Kill People, Land Use Laws Kill People

by Will on September 22, 2010

A weekend in L.A. really tests one’s capacity to tolerate the American car culture. Even more than in the outskirts of the Bay Area, the sprawl is just endless, and one cannot reach any destination, it seems, without sitting on crowded freeways or crowded thouroghfares.

The ways in which car use is subsidised are many. The subsidization of roads and highways are the most obvious case (and no, the gas tax does not cover this expense like you’ve heard — it never has). Our foreign policy, with its emphasis on good relations with some oil exporters, our occupation of one particular oil exporter, and keeping substantial forces to intimidate other oil exporters, is another implicit subsidy intended to hold down the cost of gas (though it’s doubtful they actually do this). And compared to other developed countries, we tax gas at a very low rate.

But the biggest subsidy of all to the auto makers and the gas companies comes in the form of land use laws. If I want to build a big, tall apartment building next to a public transit hub, using every inch of the property to house people who want to use the public transit to get to work, the Planning Department in most places will tell me that that’s illegal in a bunch of different ways. If my neighbors want to turn their back bedroom and garage into two separate in-law units to rent to other people who want to live in a BART-friendly place, the Planning Department will tell them that’s illegal. If I want to buy a house on the peninsula right next to CalTrain, and demolish it and put in several condos for people who want to take the train to their jobs in San Francisco, the Planning Department will again object. Low-density requirements, offset requirements, parking requirements, zoning laws, and a slew of other things that Planning Departments think are good ideas, conspire to make most new development — and this goes back more than half a century — car-friendly, and public transit-averse.

Now if all the Planning Department will permit me to build are houses with big yards and a certain amount of parking, far from existing public transit, that’s going to result in a lot of people driving, and more people driving as more people move to the area. As Matt Yglesias likes to point out, this is not a “free market” outcome. It is a consequence of public policy at three seperate levels.

As public policy, this is insane. Cars are not efficient. They spew out more crap into the air per rider than trains and streetcars and buses and the like. They are dangerous. Due to our over-reliance on them, many people die every year in accidents that wouldn’t have happened if they’d taken the train. Contrary to popular belief, people do not really enjoy commuting or traveling in cars. Indeed, long commuting times and happiness have a strongly negative correlation. So making laws that encourage people to drive, and thereby make demand and support for alternate transportion much lower than they otherwise would be, is crazy. Normally, realities are such that liberals argue for and defend regulation and limitations on property ownership, and conservatives oppose them. That seems to prevent people who should oppose the Planning Department’s nefarious doings from seeing what’s really going on here.

Leave a Comment

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

Previous post:

Next post: