The Missing Middle of Vehicles
How "Golf Carts" can Revolutionize Suburbia
A breakthrough for walkable mixed-use development.
By Mike Brown, PE, AICP
Low-speed vehicles can be faster and a lot safer than high-speed vehicles, if they are given duck-under tunnels and light-weight bridges for avoiding congestion and traffic signals.
New Urbanists talk about the "Missing Middle" in housing: too few options between single-family homes and 100-unit apartment complexes. There is also a missing middle for private vehicles: options between a 10-mph bicycle and an 80-mph freeway machine. Luckily, there is a quiet revolution occurring in a few tiny pockets - prominently in Peachtree, Georgia and "The Villages" in Florida - where they are tapping into this missing middle. The ramifications could be astonishing.
To transition decaying auto-oriented suburbs into dynamic, more walkable "Places," we need stepping stones. "More walkable" inherently means "less auto-oriented" (still auto-oriented, but a stepping stone to less so!) These communities emphasize the "less auto" part of the statement by appealing to tiny cars: less money to purchase and maintain, less energy consumed, less land consumed by parking, less danger, etc. To make these low-speed vehicles attractive, these cities have created "Low-speed, Easy Access Networks" (or LEAN networks). It's working so well that "one car, one-cart" households are commonplace.
Here are some of the benefits:
Land Recovery: Reduces the amount of land needed for parking, which frees up space for more buildings.
Helps Bikes: Justifies greater investment in bicycle networks by piggybacking on a much larger 4-wheel market.
Pre/Post-Car freedom: mobility for those who can't or shouldn't drive "big cars." (pre-16, many who are elderly)
Household affordability: much cheaper to purchase, operate, and maintain.
Reduces Congestion: Trips on alternative networks are not occupying space on traditional networks.
Low carbon footprint: Why use an energy-heavy, 80-mph Tesla with a range of over 300 miles, when all you need is 20 to 30-mph for neighborhood trips - the majority of all trips.
Expands transit walk-shed: As "moving sidewalks," use them as shuttles to/from long-haul rail or BRT.
The Trouble with Bikes
There is significant momentum toward creating excellent bicycle networks. Wonderful! But unfortunately, the market for 2-wheel vehicles will always be minuscule relative to 4-wheel vehicles, and that limits the ability to invest in them even more. Why is biking permanently unattractive for most people and most trips? Here are three reasons: 1) Climate: too hot, too cold, or too stormy; 2) Comfort: Look around - not that many of us are skinny enough or young enough for a tiny bike seat with no back rest; 3) Cargo: Hard to carry extra people and objects.
It is hard for many DOTs and communities to justify allocating valuable right-of-way and construction dollars to biking, when the vast majority of trips will always be impractical for biking. But widen a cycle track by just a few feet and voila! "Tiny cars" can now use them, provided they are no faster than eBikes. By accommodating bike-like 4-wheel vehicles, you can capture a HUGE market share. In turn, that also benefits bikes by attracting investment in bike-friendly infrastructure.
Driving Slower, but Traveling Faster
How fast is your 80-mph freeway vehicle when it is stuck at congested traffic signals? Odds are you're averaging 15 to 25-mph much of the time. If we create LEAN networks with "duck-under" tunnels or light-weight bridges across major arterials, then slow vehicles can keep going when others are stuck. The result will be super-safe networks, where speeds on average will be similar to, if not faster than, the speeds we experience much of the time anyway.
The ability to circulate safely in tiny vehicles will not only free up space consumed today by parking, but it will also increase the attractiveness of "live, work, play, and pray" within higher density Activity Centers. That will help catalyze the transition of decaying "Greyfield" strip commercial into walkable mixed-use development.
Examples from Peachtree, Georgia
I took this photo of McIntosh High School. There were so many golf carts and tiny cars that a bunch had to park on the grass, which was no big deal because they're made for grass!
A GIS analysis shows 250 "carts per acre," vs 110 traditional cars per acre. The pink sliver of land contains about 40% of all vehicles parked at the school!
City staff told me that yeas ago they spent about $10-million for 25-miles of paths, which included features like this tunnel!
The intersections and this stop sign were so small! A lot less expensive than huge intersections for standard vehicles.
Light-weight bridge over a major arterial.
Front-row parking for tiny vehicles at a local shopping center.
Examples from "The Villages" in Florida
Nine vehicles are visible in this photo. Imagine how much land would be required if these were standard vehicles!
Two carts fit easily side-by-side in a standard one-car parking space.