What if we regulated new car ownership the same way we do new housing?

A recent story about Singapore caught our eye:  In Singapore, you can’t even buy a car without a government issued “certificate”—and the number of certificates is fixed city wide.  The government auctions a fixed number of certificates each year, and the price has risen to more than $100,000.  This means that a Toyota Camry, which costs about $30,000 in the US, would cost a Singapore buyer about six times as much (including all taxes and fees).

Not surprisingly, Singapore residents complain about automobile affordability, in pretty much exactly the same way that Americans complain about housing affordability.  That led us to think about the very different way local governments regulate houses and cars in the US.  In short, houses are highly regulated; cars aren’t.

The underlying premise of the NIMBY/YIMBY divide is the notion that individual, often neighborhood permission is required before new housing can be built.  Getting a building permit is a highly regulated and often discretionary process.  Zoning and other restrictions empower neighbors to restrict the number, size and location of homes built, and whether any new housing is built at all.

The contrast between a building permit and a car license couldn’t be starker:  Issuance of car licenses is an automatic, ministerial function:  you pay a few tens or hundred dollars, and the state issues you a vehicle registration and license plate (the function if often effectively delegated to car dealers).  A building permit, as we all know, requires detailed review and may be subject to objections about density, shadows, community impacts and the like.  But if your neighbor decides to buy one, two or six new vehicles, there’s nothing to prevent them from doing so.  (Ironically, of course, the underlying issue behind many NIMBY concerns is parking, but instead of limiting the number of cars directly, we limit the number of cars by making housing scarce or unaffordable).


The decision to subject housing to an intrusive, byzantine and restrictive set of regulations, while making car registrations easy, automatic and cheap is in many ways an arbitrary one.  A world in which anyone could get a permit for a new dwelling as easily and cheaply as they get a new car registration would look very different from ours, as would a regime in which you needed to get your neighbors permission to buy a new car.

Environmental Impact Reports for New Car Registration?

The same could be said of environmental impact reports:  housing is frequently subjected to (and effectively blocked by) costly and litigious environmental impact report requirements, while the sale of new cars is completely exempt.

States like California and Washington are famous for their state-level environmental impact statement requirements, which are routinely applied to city and state development approvals for everything from new apartments to the construction of bike- and bus-lanes.

The essence of these requirements is that before undertaking a policy decision, the state and local governments should evaluate the environmental consequences of their actions. California’s CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), has been used to block  housing developments around the state. Critics say that CEQA has become “the tool of choice for preventing cities from approving high-density housing . . .. with a quarter of lawsuits against CEQA-reviewed projects targeting housing.” Similarly, in Washington State, the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) has routinely been used to challenge higher density housing. The act was even used to object to an environmental foundation’s zero net energy building, because it didn’t include parking spaces. And while actual court victories under these laws are rare, the threat of a CEQA or SEPA lawsuit is often a powerful bargaining chip in negotiations to force developer concessions.

The premise for these environmental disclosure laws is, for the most part, a good one: government decisions ought to be undertaken with a clear understanding and careful weighing of the environmental consequences. So, if we’re going to have such policies, maybe we should consider applying them to particularly environmentally damaging activities licensed by the government.

That got us thinking:  Why not apply these same policies at the Department of Motor Vehicles?  Before the DMV issues a license for a new vehicle, it really ought to be required to consider the environmental impact of doing so. Each additional car on the road will add to road congestion, air pollution, and greenhouse gases, and will likely pose a safety risk for other road users, especially persons on foot and bicycle.  For example, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average car generates 4.6 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, so each 2-year car registration should acknowledge the impact of 9 tons of CO2 emissions.  Just as cities now limit the construction of new housing when they think neighborhoods are getting overcrowded, maybe cities could set numerical limits on the issuance of new car licenses:  that would certainly attack the problem of congestion and pollution more directly than is done now.

The DMV should ask you for an EIS for that car registration

A DMV granting a vehicle license is functionally no different than a city planning department granting a building permit, so in theory it seems like the environmental review laws could apply.

Setting tough requirements for vehicle registration to protect the environment isn’t unusual. Other countries take an entirely different approach to vehicle registration. In Japan, car owners are required to show that they have their own private off-street parking space in order to register a motor vehicle.

It seems to us like a modest proposal:  if impact statements make sense for houses, why not apply them to cars—which seem to be a much more serious environmental threat, in light of recent evidence about the growth in greenhouse gas emissions. The fact that we haven’t done this already in the decades of experience with environmental impact statement requirements speaks volumes about the built-in pro-automobile bias in our current legal structure (which has been cataloged in detail in a superb article by Greg Shill).

You can add this to our earlier modest proposal that we extend the Americans with Disabilities Act to freeways, and insist that state highway departments provide accessible bus service on limited access roadways–places that are now effectively unavailable to those who are too young, too infirm or too old to drive. It’s another example of how we might take some fundamental and established provision of law and apply it in a way that is more supportive of our stated social and environmental values.