When one hears the term “the future of transportation,” images of flying taxis, self-driving automobiles, and hyperloops often come to mind. However, what if the golf cart takes center stage in the upcoming chapter on urban mobility?
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It’s not even remotely insane. Harvard Business School researchers looked at whether Tesla, the shining example of automobile innovation, provided a very disruptive transportation paradigm in 2015. They came to the conclusion that a “souped-up golf cart” had more transformational potential than a Tesla. In fact, these stumbling automobiles—which are often connected to luxury and leisure—might provide the route toward accessible, reasonably priced, and enjoyable journeys for the general public.
Here are some fundamentals in case your closest encounter with a golf cart involves Rodney Dangerfield practicing his swing. Electric or gas-powered carts are available, and their average price is around $10,000, give or take a few thousand. They are substantially lighter and slower than a vehicle, weighing between 500 and 1,100 pounds and reaching speeds of less than 20 mph. Sun protection is provided by the roof, and in the event of rain, users may remain dry with the optional plastic enclosure.
Peachtree City, a suburb of Atlanta, is an example of the transformational potential of golf carts. Currently home to over 38,000 people, Peachtree City was established in 1959 as a network of communities connected by both conventional roadways and walkways. Once the city cemented the walkways to have a 10-foot width, many more residents joined the handful who had started using golf carts to go between communities. These multiuse routes are off-limits to automobiles, however golf cart users are welcome, as are pedestrians, cyclists, and scooter riders. Peachtree City now has a network of around 100 miles of walkways that connect various neighborhoods and attractions, including tunnels beneath streets and roadways.
With almost 13,000 residences, Peachtree City Mayor Kim Learnard reports that the municipality now has over 10,000 registered golf carts. Although the state does not regulate golf carts, anybody 16 years of age or older is allowed to operate one, even without a driver’s license (children between the ages of 12 and 15 may operate one with an adult present). Although the city encourages it, insurance is not required.
The golf cart now forms an integral part of Peachtree municipal’s character, to the extent that it appears on the official municipal emblem. Learnard informed me, “We got rid of the golf clubs we had in our cart four years ago.” “We came to the conclusion that we’re more of a golf cart city than a golf city.” There are three golf courses located in Peachtree City.
Learnard stated that although most locals still drive to work, many short journeys to nearby restaurants, schools, or friends’ houses are now made in carts rather than in cars. “A fundamental aspect of the lifestyle here is the golf cart,” she remarked. “You take the family to the splash pad or park in a golf cart. Alternatively, you go out for ice cream or have a beverage with your partner. Teenagers have taken to golf carts, with many using them as a means of transportation to and from high school. Locals usually add jerry-rigged storage and upgraded radios to customize their cars. Learnard said, “It turns out you can do a lot with a couple milk crates and bungee cords.”
She enthusiastically listed the benefits of golf carts over automobiles: Residents who are unable to drive may use them to go around; local businesses can park more automobiles in their spaces because golf cart spaces are much smaller than those for cars; and the electric ones are silent and don’t emit any pollutants. She even thinks they’ve improved relations in her town. “You’re going to pull over and chat if you see your neighbor doing yard work while you’re driving your golf cart,” she said. “In a car, you’re never going to do that.”
While Peachtree City was a pioneer in the golf cart industry, other American cities have also joined this slowly gaining traction. The automobiles are an integral part of everyday life (and, reportedly, casual hookups) in the vast 55-and-over community known as The Villages in central Florida. It’s no coincidence that golf carts are a common sight in retirement communities; they provide more inexpensive, improved mobility for individuals who find it difficult to walk or drive. In addition, older people are more vulnerable to injury or death in collisions, but golf carts are less likely to injure them than vehicles.
Additionally, golf carts are common on Bald Head Island, an Outer Banks hamlet in North Carolina, which has outlawed cars, and Catalina Island, which is located 47 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. Due of their relatively modest weight, golf carts are a good fit for these kinds of sensitive environmental areas. Additionally, the cars are beginning to appear in cities like Scottsdale, Arizona, and Tampa, Florida, where rental companies serve both residents and visitors.
Golf carts aren’t always a practical mode of transportation, though. Even though they are smaller than vehicles, golf carts still occupy too much space in densely populated areas like Chicago or New York City, where bicycles and public transportation are more practical options (though a recent April Fools joke about replacing all cars in Manhattan with golf carts got people really excited). Furthermore, golf carts are not the best option for a Minnesota winter, even though they perform well in warm or temperate weather.
However, golf carts may prove to be a viable form factor in many areas where population density is insufficient to warrant high-frequency transportation operations. While there aren’t many of these communities with the golf cart-friendly networks of Peachtree City or the Villages, the routes that are already in place may be modified to securely keep users apart from faster, heavier cars. Even better, since they move at similar speeds, these protected lanes may also benefit other lightweight, emerging modes like quadricycles and e-trikes. Standardized signage for so-called “neighborhood electric vehicles” has already been established in California.
Professor of urban planning at Arizona State University David King stated, “There is an enormous amount of space we can use if we repurpose street pavement for multiuse paths.”
Now could be the ideal time to reassign that street space, as communities contemplate life after the pandemic. “There will be a great deal of pressure to improve our neighborhoods if there is a shift toward working from home,” King stated. “The golf cart will not function as long as our transportation systems are designed with the commute in mind. However, while I’m at home, a golf cart may rival any other mode of transportation for travel within five miles. Although most new cars cost $48,000, homeowners may still choose to utilize golf carts as their second vehicle for short excursions around town, even if they still drive cars for long distances.