A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Cars = Cigarettes

The following is cribbed from a Michael O'Hare essay on The Reality-Based Community. Check it out.

Conventional wisdom, fifty years ago:

  • Americans will never give up their cigarettes, it's impossible;
  • Do you know how important the tobacco industry is to the economy? Not smoking will impoverish the entire nation
  • It's my right as an American to smoke wherever I want
  • Smoking is actually good (remember the doctors in the Chesterfield ads?); the science on cigarettes' health effects is uncertain and alarmist.

Conventional wisdom, today:
  • "Americans will never give up their cars, it's impossible;
  • "Do you know how important the car industry, and road and home construction, are to the economy? Not living in car suburbs will impoverish the entire nation;
  • "It's my right as an American to drive wherever I want and park near the door when I get there;
  • "Sprawl and suburbs are actually good; the science on global warming is uncertain and alarmism."

Here's O'Hare's breakdown of how America de-smoked itself:

(1) Aggressive publicity for the scientific facts about the delayed costs.
(2) Extensive public education about the externalities of second-hand smoke.
(3) Regulations and constraints, putatively in the interest of non-smoking victims like airline flight attendants and restaurant waiters.
(4) Constant, steady price (tax) increases making the externalities internal and immediately visible.
(5) An education and social pressure campaign directed at Hollywood and TV to get the cigarettes out of its products.
(6) Publicly and charitably funded programs to help people quit.
(7) Legal action against the supplying industry to collect external costs in judgments.

In terms of dealing with cars, I'd say we're at step 2, and edging into step 3.

O'Hare writes, "Every one of these steps, especially (3), (4) and (5), proceeded in the face of confident assertions by people who should know that (i) smoking prohibitions could never be enforced, (ii) no-smoking restaurants would mean the complete collapse of the economy of one city after another, (iii) bleating about individual rights, (iv) pseudoscientific denialism."

In the case of Maine's Turnpike Authority and MDOT, I'd say that the problem isn't so much pseudoscientific denialism as pseudoeconomic denialism: the completely unsubstantiated belief that Portland's economy needs six-lane freeways so badly that we should spend a quarter billion dollars on pavement.

And so we'll proceed in the face of their confident assertions that car-addicted engineers know what's best for us, and we'll beat this addiction, too.

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