That's 2 seperate issues Bobby.
You say you don't call it optimisation, but "These pages are designed purely to rank for these search strings yet do not deliver any relevant content." - ie they are optimised for search engines.
Quality of content or not, that's SEO.
"Every page for every "city" is the same, a long list of keywords that repeats itself over and over."
Title or page?
The former is an over-zealous SEO getting carried away and the latter is most likely a scraper, or otherwise auto-generated site. Both very different.
"I believe that a title tag should describe what the page is about, similar to a book title."
What like Meta description? That worked out well didn't it? I'd call that wishfull thinking and with all due respect Google ain't going to do a damn thing about it. Entirely down to you to get with the programme and do what you need to rank your site.
No, of course spamming is taking it a little far, but even book and film titles are altered based on the audience they are targeted at - branding, sellability, user retention, uniqueness, etc all go a long way.
Optimising title tags based on what users are search for is no different - you are just taking the basic concept and grounding it with the commerical reality of the real world.