Time for More Diverse Vehicles

Biking to work this morning I passed a golf-cart like vehicle that was chugging down the street. I was reminded about how uncreative we are with our choices of vehicles. Most households have a couple of cars — and those cars are overbuilt for what they’re actually used for 95% of the time. They’re set up to carry five people, go really fast, etc. — when almost all our trips are single person to a close destination where speed isn’t paramount. It’s like using a sledgehammer to kill the housefly, or using a blunderbuss when a rubber band gun would do.

For getting around town, we could use those golf cart vehicles, which, if moving at 20 mph, would get us to our five-mile destination in 15 minutes, compared with 12 minutes for a 30 mph car ride. Many folks are moving to FlexCar for their second car, but we it seems we could be using more scooters, golf carts, electric bikes, etc. (and, of course, normal bikes) for short trips of one person. With transportation expenditures almost equal to housing costs, it seems just cultural expectation (and mental difficulty in adding fixed costs to marginal costs in our heads) that’s preventing us from thinking more creatively about matching our vehicles to our needs.

Traveling in the future may involve twelve or twenty significantly different types of vehicles all moving around town. From the Segway to the bike, the wheelchair to the golf cart, the pick-up to the bus, it seems more diversity is the way of the future.

When it comes to bikes, there are definitely some creative vehicles out there, and the industry seems to be constantly offering new products that actually meet the trips — the new around-town cruisers are the perfect example. When will other industries catch up? What price will gas have to reach?

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21 responses to “Time for More Diverse Vehicles”

  1. Perhaps you saw the Pearl Real Estate Vehicle being driven around?

    This also brings to mind a piece I heard on public radio (look for “Electric Car Report” –
    they have audio, but not in MP3 yet) last week. It was talking about a company in Cordoba Spain that was renting vehicles they called “Blobjects”
    to tourists.

    These actually appear to be “GEM” cars (Global Electric Motorcars, a DaimlerChrysler subsidiary).

    I kind of like the no door thing.

  2. When STOP had its offices in King City I saw people arriving at the shopping center in their golf carts pretty regularly. Of course King City is a retirement community built around a golf course.

    As usual,the problem is not with the available technology. The problem is a combination of urban design and the high priority we give to moving automobiles at their optimum speed. Golf carts can’t really safely share the road with cars moving at speeds of 25 mph. If we reduced those speeds down to 15mph or lower all sorts of alternatives become available.

  3. I recently visited friends in Germany who have a Smart Car. I’ve never experienced car lust until I saw that tiny, cute, practical little vehicle. Why have I never seen one in the states? Are they legal, and are they being sold? As far as I can tell, the only Smart Car in the states is being shown at the MOMA…that’s great, guys, but can’t you get them into the market as an alternative to the tanks that are being used for tiny errands?

    Oh, and Evan, at least one family in Portland is taking your advice…here’s a funny vehicle I saw at someone’s house up on Alamerda. I spoke with the owner, who works for Columbia Scooter. It’s a Bajaj (Indian brand) auto-rickshaw. He says the whole family loves it, and they use it for most family trips. It can go up to 40 MPH and is allowed everywhere but the freeway.

  4. So much of the alternative transportation discussion presumes a single individual moving through space… but of course people have kids… sometimes lots of them.

    My sister in law is moving 3 of her young children around her PDX neighborhood in a 3 person (plus basket for the baby), 2 pedaler, quad bike (or Surrey). It has a bench seat for 2 pedalers and a passenger, and a big basket where 2 kids can sit in front of that.

    I tried it. It’s hard work, but fun…. but I wasn’t pedaling with three kids!

    It looks sort of like this: quadbike and you can see lots more here: Lots of four wheelers here.

    I think an electrified Surey might be just the thing for her.

    We were chatting yesterday about getting some dogs to help with the pulling. Great Danes? I think Huskies would be better. These would be real working dogs… not pets.

    Then we got to talking about horse ownership in NE Portland… could you do it legally? Did people keep a horse in their backyard back in the 1900s and 1910s when her neighborhood was being built? There are certainly horse tie rings embedded in the curb still.

    I mean, think about it… a horse transforms hay into energy! Pretty amazing. Of course a horse also kicks your brains out if you’re not careful.

    But I wouldn’t put it past her to buy one if she can. Anyone know about the legalities of housing a horse in your Portland backyard?

    Also check this out: Wired

  5. Your backyard would be stomped into a giant mudhole within a few days of horse occupancy. And no, people didn’t keep horses in their backyards. To the extent that urbanites owned horses, they kept them at public stables or out in the country. Horses were mostly used to pull service vehicles back then: Milk delivery, garbage pickup, etc. And of course for taxis. People used streetcars, walked, or hired horse-drawn taxis to get about. And the manner in which most horses were treated back then would horrify animal rights activists today.

  6. Do mass transit vehicles have to be so heavy? Like most industries, greater cost-effectiveness should promote greater use. A heavy vehicle costs more to produce, more to install (if rail) and uses more energy. We should assume that nanotechnology will someday produce very light metals; but are there not, products or design concepts that could even now reduce vehicle weight without compromising safety? I would hope that we could see a downward spiral in all transportation costs- thus making mass transit more popular and connecting further to other modes of travel.

    A similar principle should hold true for personal vehicles. Right now we need protection from getting crushed by a semi-truck; these should be lighter,too. Maybe yer bike will weigh two pounds! Maybe yer streetcar will have a trailer for yer ultralight personal vehicle! Maybe ther will be a starbucks on the bus!

  7. I was up in British Columbia last week and I saw tiny little SMART cars buzzing around all over the place, especially within downtown Vancouver. They seem to be as popular there as MINI Coopers are here.

    If we can have even smaller electric cars on the road, why not SMART cars? What’s the hold up?

  8. These “SMART” cars have been in Europe now for a few years. The answers are easy. The Big Three car companies don’t own the designs, so getting them into our markets are being stopped. But at the same time, Big Oil also doesn’t want Americans to have a highly efficent, attractive, vehicle.

    Think Big Drugcos saying that America has to pay more for the same drugs other nations use. We are in a “protect the corporation” economy at all costs (forget about labor or the consumer, only the stockholder matters). Our CEO’s are so slow on change.


  9. Hey there, I’m the sister-in-law with the red surrey cycle that was mentioned above, yes it is very hard work and I mainly hold the baby in a sling while I pedal (he’s pretty young for the basket). http://www.worksman.com/Italiansurreys.htm and this was the only thing I could find to get me and my 4 kids around town together without using a big car. I wish there was a way to add a “power-assist” to help with hills, or when I get tired…was thinking of an animal of some kind, one that enjoys pulling things…but really, there’s got to be a way! We have friends who are getting a ZEM bike for their family http://www.zem.ch/en/ which is better than the Surrey Cycle in many ways (seats can be adjusted so even a 6 year old can help pedal/get exercise, it has disc brakes, etc.) but it’s not as cute! Yes, we need to have access to more diverse vehicles in Portland…if anyone would like to rent my Surrey Cycle for a day, please email me.

  10. Well, I’ve pretty much decided to buy a nice, used moped/scooter. In the 49cc class, they are cheap, easy to maintain, about $2.00 to fill the tank, insurance is around $5-10 per month, and they can go around 30-35 mph for the average one.

    I live in NW Portland, so it would be a great fit for me. I enjoy riding my bike very much, but there are times that I don’t want to arrive at my destination 2 hours later and very sweaty.

    There are lots of Chinese knock-offs of the normal brands that are also really cheap – unfortuantely, their reliability may also be in question – but it would be great to see more people ride these.

    Sure, when it rains it wouldn’t be the most fun – but after buying one of these, you should still have some $$ left over to spend on a nice North Face, REI or Patagonia waterproof jacket – that would otherwise go towards those SUV payments.

    To encourage the useage of these vehicles, Portland needs to add scooter/motorcycle parking EVERYWHERE – and now! (same with bike parking too!)

    Why is Portland so slow to add parking for these vehicles? I bet more and more people would ride if they had really cheap & convenient parking available (just like cars in suburbia!) downtown and all around town.

  11. SMART cars are being imported into the US and converted to meet US safety and emissions standards by a company called ZAP… See:

    ZAP is not affiliated with the official SMART company… they import the cars from Europe and modify them here.

    There is a USA division of SMART at:

    Unfortunately, they are very coy about release dates or costs.

    According tot he article, the ZAP import retails for around $27,000. That’s $6,000 more than a Toyota Prius, for a gas mileage rating that isn’t much higher, so it may have a hard time catching on. (A Prius has about 2.5X the interior room, greater acceleration, and much higher top speed.)

    Now, I’m sure that mass-produced officially sold SMART cars will be much cheaper. A Canadian newspaper article metioned a $16,000 (CAD) price tag, which is far, far more reasonable when considering such a small car.

    A side issue: The SMART is a diesel. Diesels are far more popular in Europe than here. Diesels have more particulate emissions than gasoline engines (although this can be moderated), but most diesel cars I have encountered have had far more engine noise outside the car than their gasoline counterparts.

    One of the things I like very much about true hybrids (such as the Prius) is that they are very quiet in low-speed urban driving. If 50% of the car fleet became hybrids in say, 20 years, downtown areas would be much quieter, more human-friendly places.

    I’ve never heard a SMART in person… anyone care to comment on their noise level? What would an urban environment populated by many such cars sound like compared to today?

    – Bob R.

  12. Scooters are fun, but to my mind they offer all of the disadvantages of biking (except for sweat) with none of the exercise benefits. But still, they are more appropriate vehicles for the majority of urban short trips….as long as they’re not lawnmower engine pollution machines.

  13. Yea, 4-strokers are a must, in my opinion. Since I live in NW Portland and go to school at PSU…it’s not like I have to go very far.

    I figure the normal long-distance trips I would take would be a couple miles to NE or SE.

  14. OK that confirms it.

    I thought you were lampooning yourselves at first. Then I thought: “OK, they are young. Deficit in life experience. Be kind.”

    Can’t be kind anymore.

    You guys are complete dolts. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to name call.

    If Oregon loves dreamers, how does it feel about people with completely ridiculous fantasies?

    Have you ever stopped to wonder what the vast majority of the populace would think about your ideas? They would tell you to shove them up your ass, but your head beat it there!

  15. http://www.commutercars.com. The answer is here. Check it out! The Tango is an ultra-narrow electric vehicle that can double our freeway capacity and parking. Because it is only 39-inches wide, two Tangos fit side-by-side in a travel lane. You could even drive them onto a railcar flatbed for long distance transport. It seats two people, passenger behind driver. It is a real car, not a golfcart, that goes like a bat out of hell. 0-60 mph in 4 seconds, 150 mph top speed, 40-mile recommended range, race-car roll cage safety, and great stability. Twenty 12-volt batteries in the floor act as balast and power source. This is available technology today! The only problem? Getting it into production in quantity to bring the price down, which means finding investors or a government grant. $50 million is needed to buy molds and build a manufacturing facility to get the price down to $10,000/car. (It seems more money at less risk can be made by Angel investors in electronics.) Nevertheless, there’s a great opportunity here to transform Oregon’s transportation system and do some economic development at the same time. Out of ODOT’s $1.6 billion budget and with funds from the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department, do you think $50 million could be found to invest in a home-grown industry? For the cost of building more freeway lanes and impacts to the environment, it almost would pay to give these cars away.

  16. can anyone give me info on the smart cars there is a person that goes by my work in one of these cars there on loan from germany but he said they have to go back eventually these cars are really cool looking i drive an 01 turbo beetle that i really like but i would really consider a smart car !!!! thanks for any info roman

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