Isn’t “cult” a bit … extreme?

Au contraire. Adrian Furnham (right) is my kind of guy. He bikes to work and doesn’t own a cell phone.  

Furnham is professor of psychology at University College London, and compiled this list of characteristics of a cult for Psychology Today. With one minor difference, the Car Cult Club followed the same brainwashing techniques:

Robert Moses (center) was the most powerful person in New York City for 38 years, yet was never elected. Alfred Sloan (right) ruthlessly pushed to build freeways and dispose of electric railway systems.

Powerful and exclusive dedication/devotion to an explicit person or creed.

Blacktop and internal-combustion vehicles, period.

New York City parks and roads czar Robert Moses worked the levers of power like Merlin, but he inherited his arrogance from his grandmother, who dealt with lineups for anything by butting her way to the front.

Alfred Sloan, who created modern General Motors, was a brilliant manager in many ways, and fiendishly hardworking. GM swam in cash for a glorious run. Problems started appearing when the automaker nixed small cars in 1947 because they didn’t have fat enough profit margins. Then Volkswagen, Nissan, Toyota, Honda and others unleashed better-quality, more economical vehicles. Sloan’s unwieldy management structure responded with junk, utter junk like the Corvair and Vega. (In the summer of ‘74, I delivered parts for Empress Pontiac in Victoria. One of the two delivery vehicles was a purple Pontiac Astre (a Vega with a different nameplate) station wagon. It  might as well have been a Lada, though it lacked the explode-on-impact charm of the Ford Pinto.) 

As well, because GM didn’t have to compete with electric transit systems in most cases either, the company became as out-of-touch and went bankrupt. Not to worry, though, since Uncle Sam (plus Canada and Ontario taxpayers) bailed them and Chrysler out. 

“Thought-reform” programs to integrate, socialize, persuade and therefore control members.

General Motors engineers, especially Marmion Mills, churned out reports and propaganda films on the wonderfulness of freeways blasting through the middle of cities, and of cars and diesel buses in general. Even competitors like Ford got in on the fun.

In the best tradition of George Orwell, GM came up with a nifty example of Newspeak: “motorization”. When the trams were nuked and internal-combustion buses foisted in place, a city had been successfully “motorized”. That’s because, as you well know, streetcars run on the magic potion brewed in a cauldron by the Gallic wizard Getafix. You should get hold of some. One gulp and you can pummel a whole phalanx of Roman legionnaires.

“Motorization” hmmm? What a wonderful term to brew up.


Well thought through recruitment, selection and socialization process.

Sloan and Mills recruited successful but small-scale entrepreneurs like the Fitzgerald brothers, Barney Larrick and the Smith brothers of Louisville KY (let’s call them FLS) to do their dirty work and mask the Dr. Evils skulking behind the scenes.

Barbara Stanwyck is General Motors, the femme fatale who sucks in dupes like Fred MacMurray (the Fitzgerald brothers etc.) Edward G Robinson is the canny observer (Jay Quinby) who smells a rat.

Attempts to maintain psychological and physical dependency among cult members.

FLS were hardworking and modestly successful guys. What GM did was make them much richer and seduce them like the seductive vixen in those film noir movies. GM handed out gifts like dealerships and Cadillacs to entice others.

Cults insist on reprogramming the way people see the world.

What the hell is a tram? Growing up in Esquimalt/Victoria BC cars, diesel buses and malls were my world. The idea that a city could have bike paths going everywhere, as in say Amsterdam or Copenhagen, was as out there as flying cars on the Jetsons.

The bike grand champion seems to be Houten, a small city in the Netherlands, where 44% of people commute by bicycle. On the pedestrian front, Bilbao Spain takes the prize. SIXTY percent of its people walk to work.

Trams and bikes in Amsterdam, summer and winter.

Consistent exploitation of group members specifically to advance the leader’s goals.

GM had to do things a bit differently here. FLS weren’t lost sheep. Sloan and Mills had to just use the carrots. The sticks wouldn’t work.

Cults nearly always go in for milieu control signals: a different, unfamiliar setting with different rules, terms, behavior patterns.

Prior to the Jim Jonesies hatching their schemes, every city in North America had a tram system. The Electroliner electric train which ran between Chicago and Milwaukee and PCC tram were extremely advanced, and both machines were developed entirely in the US (Montreal and Toronto transit companies also contributed to the PCC consortium). Not only were these two vehicles high-tech, they looked good too. The Electroliner had a very snappy paint job. General Motors had to con people that the big changeover was natural. “WHAT’S THAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THE INCREDIBLE DIN OF THAT BUS!” 

Extensive research by the PCC consortium was mostly done in Brooklyn. It produced the most technically advanced tram of its day, with a bright, comfortable interior (Carlson & Schneider).

Ultimately using psychological and physical harm to cult members, their friends and relatives and possibly the community as a whole.

Robert Moses leveled an estimated quarter million homes in NYC to build his build his freeways, and probably at least as many again for “urban-renewal” housing projects that became slums, and projects like the United Nations building, Lincoln Center and a raft of others. In The Power Broker, his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the autocrat, Robert Caro gives detailed accounts of how the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the elevated Gowanus Expressway in Brooklyn destroyed beehive working-class neighborhoods. Some of the concepts which were Swahili as far as Moses were concerned were “consultation”, “compromise”, “waterfront access” or “wildlife habitat”: Caro recounts that while speaking with a reporter, the park and road czar laughed about attempts by “the bird lovers” to preserve a marsh that stood in the path of the Major Deegan Expressway. “We just filled it in a little faster,” he explained. 

Because Moses skillfully hoovered every nickel of transportation spending for roads, the Big Apple’s once-excellent subways and commuter railways deteriorated to the state of, well, a dirty and graffiti-covered Chevy Vega. The spaghetti of tram lines were vaporized completely, with General Motors doing the first big conversion, in Manhattan, over 1935 and ‘36. The freeway obsession also starved New York schools, hospitals, daycares, libraries…all other public services.

Bike-riding urban guru Jane Jacobs (left) and others successfully fought LOMEX (Lower Manhattan Expressway, art by Christin & Balez), which would have made an ugy gash like the Cross-Bronx Expressway (right).