In our concluding comment on the Blog post GEOGRAPHIC ILLITERACY RAMPANT (4 April), we promised to further address the strong endorsement of private-vehicle systems by Chris B. which opened the comment section in this thread.

The 27 June report from the Surgeon General on the impact of second-hand smoke (Involuntary Smoking) reminded me I had started the response but had not finished it. Here are our thoughts on Chris’ comments on the superiority of an urban mobility system based on private vehicles and the settlement patterns that private vehicles support and require.


Chris’ strong words had a familiar ring, not on this specific topic but on some topic… Then it struck me: It was my father extolling the virtues of cigarettes; his right to smoke them and his belief that smoking was not potentially detrimental to his health or those around him. He was just as sure he was right about smoking as is Chris about his right to use and the impact of private automobiles.

My father died of a smoking related illness before I was experienced enough to discuss a lot of things with him beyond those related to farming, hunting, fishing, building construction and hard work. A brilliant but unschooled person, his debates with summer rangers and naturalist (many of them college professors) were legendary in Glacier National Park during the 50s and early 60s. When our family established a scholarship fund in his name at the university, some of the most generous contributions came from those summer debate participants. He had a way with words and was often right on. (See “Santa Barbara–A Microcosm of Water Allocation Dysfunction” Chapter 11 Box 1 The Shape of the Future.)

Pa was dead wrong about cigarettes. Cigarettes did in both he and my mother but he spoke with the same assurance and tone as Chris’ comments about the private-vehicle mobility and access.

We have all heard variations of Chris’ pro-auto statements in a thousand circling camps (aka, hearings) related to pattern and density of land use. When pressed some admit that they are only trying to justify a decision they made before they understood the consequences. Many, however, really believe the scatteration and dispersion are good things, that “the long commute really is worth it” and some even think scatteration is a “solution” for immobility.

The statements of reverence for private-vehicle urban mobility are supported directly and indirectly by those who profit from:

The sale of automobiles and automobile accessories

Pumping, refining, shipping and selling petroleum products for private vehicles

Designing, building and maintaining roadways

Scattering of urban land uses across the Countryside.

These beliefs are reinforced daily by billions of dollars worth of advertising in MainStream Media, just as the misconceptions about smoking – freedom, relaxation, sophistication – were in the 20s, 30s 40s, 50s and 60s.

The dangers of smoking were dismissed as foolishness for years. I understand that similar statements were made about the need to pasteurize milk and enforce railway safety standards. I have the heard arguments against mine safety standards, comprehensive testing of the long term impact of drugs, listing the contents of packaged food and rating the content of entertainment products.

In the case of smoking tobacco, private-vehicle domination, unpasteurized milk, railway and mine safety standards, comprehensive testing of the long term impact of drugs, listing the contents of packaged food and rating the content of entertainment products someone loses economic advantage. However, in each of these cases the general public benefits from changes in the way society addresses health, safety and welfare as civilization advances.

But why do others who in fact are losers (some individual losers, all collective losers) champion the myths that enrich tobacco interests, auto makers, land speculators and road builders, milk producers, railway and mine owners, drug companies, food processors and the entertainment industry?

Perhaps a second voice from the past can shed some light. One of our most enjoyable law school experiences was chairing the Boalt Hall Speakers Forum. Back before notable persons expected a four and five figure fees for appearing in person to express their thoughts, getting prestigious speakers to visit a respected law school in the San Francisco Bay New Urban Region was easy and rewarding–great lunches at the Faculty Club, great talks and stimulating discussions afterwards.

One of the most memorable personalities and one of the best speakers was Eric Hoffer. Hoffer, a longshoreman, was a mountain of a man and a tremendous speaker. His 1951 book True Believers: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements provides valuable insight on why some who turn out to be individual losers still champion causes that result in everyone being a loser. Hoffer’s insights may provide insight into support mobility systems that cause dysfunctional human settlement patterns.


In his book Collapse: Why Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond outlines two fundamental causes for collapse of societies:

Failure to intelligently plan for the future

Failure to reconsider traditional values when times and conditions change.

(See “Collapse, An Appreciation,” 8 August 2005 at db4.dev.baconsrebellion.com

Is cigarette smoking a traditional value? Is it a private “right” given the impact of second hand smoke now called Involuntary Smoking?

Is the right to drive a private-vehicle wherever one wants to drive it, whenever they want to go there a tradition value? Is it a private right? Is it worthy of massive public subsidy?

For whatever reason, a substantial minority of citizens come forward to champion “conventional stupidity” about citizens “love affair with the automobile” and the superiority of the settlement patterns that extensive reliance on private vehicle’s dictate.

We know they are a minority because the market demonstrates that those who can afford it, choose more compact, functional settlement patterns.

In a comment under the post “HOWLING IGNORANCE” on this blog (29 March 2006 now archived) we note:

“It is far easier to solve the engineering issues and address intelligently the economic, social and physical ramifications of creating functional human settlement patterns than it is to stem the flow of misinformation and intentional distortions from those who do not like the outcome of fact based discussion (of the pattern and density of land use).” This cohort includes those who what to sell their land for scattered urban land uses and who own land outside the primary station-area of shared-vehicle transport systems.

The surprising thing is that those who hope to directly benefit from dysfunctional patterns of settlement are joined by those who say they really believe that private-vehicle dominated settlement patterns are a good thing. They champion the private-vehicle and claim it is the best current and future option to provide mobility and access for urban citizens. Blogs provide the perfect venue for propagating misinformation of the topic.


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2 responses to “VOICES PAST AND PRESENT”

  1. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “….they are a minority because the market demonstrates that those who can afford it, choose more compact, functional settlement patterns.”

    This is utterly wrong. At most, some of those who can afford it choose compact settlement patterns. The biggest market for multi-million dollar homes is not in compact areas, it is in the countryside. Even in middleclass suburbia, there are thousands of people in 700,000 homes that could easily live as you falsely claim they wish to, but they don’t.

    Maybe a minority come forward to champion the auto, but a substantial majority use the auto for the majority of their travel. At present there is no other mode of travel that offers all the benefits that autos do: speed, comfort, convenience, versatility, and cost. Yes cost, even after all the negative social costs, and costs not paid by the users are thrown in, cars still offer the maximum net benefit.

    We do a lot of stupid things with cars, and cars themselves could be much better and more environmentally friendly. They are not ever going away, so we might as well figure out a plan to use them well, rather than simply extolling their faults.

    It is a lot easier to convince people with true facts. You might try it some time.

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “This cohort includes those who what to sell their land for scattered urban land uses and who own land outside the primary station-area of shared-vehicle transport systems.”

    I assume this cohort you are talking about is the minority losers mentioned in the previous paragraphs.

    If you compare those who own land inside the primary station area of shared vehicle systems with those outside, the the number of people to pick you minority losers from outnumbers the minority winners by a very large margin. I asked one of them recently what was the best thing Metro could do to improve access throughout the system.

    Her answer was instantaneous: build more parking.

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