For Urban Vehicles, Let’s Use the Right Tool For the Job

At, contributors talk a lot about how to create cities where personal automobiles take on a less primary presence, and the needs of other street uses – pedestrians, cyclists, and transit-users – can rise to the forefront. However, today I’d like to take an opportunity to discuss the vehicles that we do have, and how they’re different from those in other places and other times over the last century.

With the post-war economy in full swing and a seemingly endless supply of space and oil, our cars grew to conquer the open freeways between our cities and the wide roads of suburbia. Rather than constrain vehicles to our environment, we built our environment to accommodate our vehicles. To maximize the safety of vehicle occupants in an 80 mph freeway crash, we have added crumple zones, airbags, and steel – which has increased the size and weight of cars to the point that during three decades of technological advancement, the fuel economy of cars  barely budged. Fortunately we’ve seen slight uptick in recent years due to the addition of hybrid batteries.

Average fuel economy for cars sold in the U.S, 1975-2015 (Personal Transportation Factsheet, University of Michigan)

Americans drive 6000 pound SUVs and empty trucks capable of towing 12,000 pounds to the supermarket for groceries; to borrow an analogy, we use a 163 lb drill press to install tiny screws in a door frame. And it’s little surprise, given that we go to great lengths to accommodate them.

It’s probably fair to assume Americans’ preference for their 163-pound drill presses won’t change overnight and these large vehicles will roam suburban mall parking lots for the foreseeable future. But in urban places, there’s an interesting opportunity to take a different tack.

Cars and trucks capable of comfortably cruising at 80 mph on the freeway for ten hours are badly optimized for city use. They are simply unnecessarily large, unnecessarily heavy, and poorly packaged.  All the weight, size, limited visibility (side airbags and higher beltlines reduce window size dramatically) regulated into them in the name of safety was only for the sake of their occupants; that same weight and size makes them even more menacing to pedestrians and cyclists than they would be otherwise. Tall SUVs in particular have been shown to be extra dangerous.

I recently was lucky enough to take a trip to Bolivia, a place where tiny, cab-over “minibuses” circulate around and between cities constantly, carrying a dozen people in the footprint of a Ford Ranger.

Catching a mini-bus in Bolivia (Gwen Kash // CC BY-NC 2.0)

Local deliveries are made with Japanese kei trucks, built to a footprint and engine size that rewards them with tax breaks in Japan.

A Subaru Sambar Kei-truck (Wikipedia)

In fact, the kei cars are perhaps the last of a long series of “micro” cars produced in various countries over the second half of the twentieth century. According to the Lane Motor Museum (a delightfully weird place that I highly recommend to anyone that finds themselves in Nashville), there were hundreds of different microcars produced over the years, usually incentivized by government regulation or tax policy during times of high fuel prices or shortages in raw materials.

The most successful microcar, the BMW Isetta got 78 mpg – in 1955. (Wikipedia)

These are cars made for cities – cars that use less space, less fuel, and fewer raw materials than cars made for freeway use, and I’d love to see some of them replace full sized cars for city use. And luckily enough, microcars still exist, but are in something of a regulatory gray area. In Minnesota, a classification called “Medium-speed Electric Vehicles” allows for small electric cars on streets with a speed limit up to 35 mph (which ideally should cover more or less all streets in the city proper). However, in the case that the vehicle isn’t electric, cities must write their own ordinance allowing it. While there are clear environmental advantages of pushing electric vehicles in cities, I would argue that it makes sense to allow all microcars in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

A Polaris GEM as a portable market (Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly enough, one of the major manufacturers of these vehicles, electric and motorized, is the Minnesota company Polaris. While they are marketed towards campus use, it would be great to see them roaming the rest of the city, making deliveries and solving the last-mile problem for those who can’t walk or bike. And when used by police, they create less of a barrier between the officers and citizens.

For me, the question becomes: Why are microcars fairly uncommon, if they are, as I argued, better optimized for many urban uses than conventional vehicles? I suspect that, just as they discourage many aspiring bicycle commuters, our streets are simply too wide and too fast. As we work to calm them, hopefully we’ll see more microcars replace larger vehicles. Perhaps the Minneapolis and St. Paul governments are in a unique position to lead the way by example by clarifying the legal status of these alternative vehicles, and employing them in day-to-day use around the cities.


43 thoughts on “For Urban Vehicles, Let’s Use the Right Tool For the Job

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Great post and ideas. You would think this kind of policy change would be popular at the legislature!

  2. Monte Castleman

    The problem with your analogy is that the average home work room can hold, and the average person can afford, a broad selection of hand and power tools, so you never have to use something that’s overkill for the job. The same can’t be said for owning a broad selection of vehicles so you never have to use one that’s overkill for the job.

    Even if you could afford it I imagine we’d be having discussions about parking or huge garages to accommodate all those vehicles in the city. Maybe a microcar in the city is fine for driving down Lyndale to work downtown, but how many city residents never use the 55 mph freeways? Never haul a family to Chicago or the north woods? Never bring home IKEA furniture, a weeks worth of groceries, a summer’s worth of wood chips? The same pickup or SUV you see driving to work empty on a weekday is probably doing that on the weekends.

    Contrary to what some people think, I don’t think it’s common to buy a big vehicle just to show off. Most people don’t want to blow their money like that. I’d say most people buy the size vehicle they need for what they need to do with it, and can’t afford or have space for a second vehicle for just driving down Lyndale to work.

    1. Carol Becker

      I agree with Monte. The reason that people buy larger cars is the same reason that we buy 46 passenger buses that are empty most of the time of operation – the marginal cost to get a larger vehicle is small compared to the hassle of finding a larger vehicle when you need one. For most people, most of their trips are just them alone.I have several motorcycles which are in essence what you are arguing for but the type of trips I could take on it was fairly small. I could commute on it but I could not pick up my kid or partner or even really shop on it. Home and back and that was it. No garden center or Home Depot or even a full grocery shop. In Minneapolis, 40% of the City is families with children and something like that would never work for them. Maybe if you are single without family in the area and not a lot of friends. And prices have been pretty high for these things – like $10,000+. Maybe if you could get the cost down to a cheap motorcycle more people would use them. But for your primary car, probably not.

    2. ALF

      When I was a teenager in the 1990s, my family of four bought a minivan. The main justification for it was that cramming everything into our Toyota Tercel was really tough for out-of-town trips. But that really only applied to about 2-3 weeks out of the year; the rest of the time, we were driving a vehicle twice the size of the car that had previously served just fine. I don’t think my parents’ choice was unique: like most people do if they can afford it, they picked a vehicle that could accommodate the outside edge of their needs. I think there are many ways around this, starting with the fact that many households already have multiple vehicles and could probably size down the smallest one with little, if any, loss of convenience for the household as a whole. Also, how many people have actually penciled out the cost of occasionally renting a larger vehicle vs. actually owning one?

      There could surely also be other ways of pooling access to bigger/smaller vehicles, so that people could either own the giant SUV but not have to drag it around town all the time, or own the microvehicle but have access to crowd/cargo capacity when they needed it. Carshare was maybe not a huge success as implemented here so far, but that doesn’t mean that there is no possible way it could work.

      I don’t think there’s any way to disagree that many trips are taken in vehicles that are massively overpowered for *that trip,* and that results in unnecessary consumption of public and personal resources. The point here isn’t that everybody should just go out tomorrow and add a microvehicle to their driveway, it’s that they are a useful tool that could help address this problem, if we can figure out what changes to infrastructure/laws/culture would be needed to enable their wider use.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Even if it pencils out to be cheaper to occasionally rent a vehicle, you have to put a price on the massive hassle and aggravation it is to rent a vehicle vs having one available in right in your own garage. And that’s assuming the rental agency doesn’t charge you $500 for a scratch that you failed to notice and report when you picked it up.

        I’m very skeptical of TaaS for a number of reasons, but it it does happen presumably you could order anything from an electric bicycle to a moving van to appear on your doorstep.

    3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Considering that nearly,everyone buys a deadly SUV and don’t use it for sport or utility, there’s something other than practicality going on.

      Car-sharing could certainly facilitate using the right tool for the job, though

      1. Julie Kosbab

        This. Unless you mean to tell me that 3/4 of the residents of Blaine are using their really shiny trucks and SUVs for anything other than going to Costco and hauling hockey gear to the SuperRink.

        Which, realistically, can be done with my little Mazda.

        1. commissar

          the reasoning is that few times a year you need something bigger. you can’t have multiple, specialized vehicles, and rental companies are rather unscrupulous, and a pain in the ass. plus 4wd/AWD in winter.

      2. Monte Castleman

        There’s a lot of practicality to an SUV, considering how versatile they are at switching between cargo and passenger, and how they’re typically AWD with big tires and we get a lot of snow and ice in this climate.

        For me the winter performance is great, but also I’ve yet to find a car that didn’t absolutely torture my bad back after a few hours on the road (due to how your knees are higher than your hips in a car; I can throw my bicycle into the back without even taking off the wheel and even take a nap in the back.

        1. Justin H

          About 65% of SUVs sold are FWD, not the typical AWD that you claim. This is no doubt done to increase fuel economy. AWD is not as much of help in snow as you may think. Correct winter tires make a much bigger difference. All cars have four wheel braking, AWD doesn’t help you at all when stopping, which is the most important part of snow/winter driving.

          All the arguments you’ve espoused in this thread hold true for a station wagon, except the wagon gets better milage, fits in the urban environment better, and doesn’t kill pedestrians at double the average rate.

          1. commissar

            only if you’re counting the crossovers. full size SUVs are at least RWD. my dad went shopping for a pickup recently, and you couldn’t find anything but 4wd unless you wanted to go to chicago.

          2. Monte Castleman

            Having driven both, having AWD makes an absolutely huge night and day difference in foul weather conditions. I’ll never own a non-AWD vehicle again in this climate.

            I’m assuming the 65% statistic is nationwide. I looked nationwide for my last SUV. I hoped to buy one from down south where it doesn’t rust, but I had to let go of that idea becase it’s just about impossible to find an AWD SUV in say Florida. Meanwhile it’s just about impossible to find a 2WD SUV up here. I’ve reviewed thousands and thousands of used car listing helping out at my stepfather’s dealership.

    4. Scott Walters

      That’s financially poor planning. A small hatchback, with a trailer hitch, is as capable as an F-150 at hauling wood chips or IKEA furniture home, dead plants or tree stumps to the compost heap, or massive amounts of trash to the dump. The hatchback costs less than half the cost of the F-150 or the large SUV. The trailer costs almost nothing compared to either vehicle ($600 gets a nice one), is a whole lot easier to keep clean, and if you buy it used on Craig’s List it’s not even a depreciating asset (assuming you take even the least amount of care of it).

      The hatchback costs less to buy, less to register, less to insure, less to fill up, is more comfortable to ride in, has a much smaller environmental footprint, and is safer for everyone else around you. It’s also easier to drive and easier to park.

      A small trailer is way better than an SUV. All the same logic, plus you don’t have the stinky dead plant matter inside the vehicle with you. The trailer hitch on your hatchback is also great for holding a bike rack, or one of those cooler platform things…now it’s almost as good as a minivan at hauling camping gear around.

      The small trailer is actually better than the F-150 or the SUV at its job. The deck is lower, and it’s a lot easier to load or unload. If you haul something nasty, and it gets all over the trailer, you also probably care a lot less about getting yuck on your $500 trailer than all over your car or truck.

      Best thing…when you are done with it, you can sell it for exactly what you bought it for. In Minnesota, you get a permanent registration sticker, so there is exactly zero annual cost of ownership. A decade’s worth of hauling stuff…for free.

      That, my friends, is how you haul stuff without having to pay for it.

      BTW…for the median wage earner, switching from a full size SUV or pickup to that hatchback means you get to retire 10 YEARS earlier if you spend a typical working career timeline driving the hatchback instead of the SUV and invest the cost differential. That’s not a typo. Screw 65, anybody can retire then, retire at 55 instead.

        1. commissar

          that guys a moron that’s going to burn out his vehicle. the xA is NOT recommended for towing at ANY weight. per manufacturer.

            1. commissar

              still knows nothing about cars. still will burn out his transmission. maybe he’s got some good points, but advocating towing trailers with small cars is not going to work

      1. Monte Castleman

        That’s a fair point about trailers, but once again there’s the storage space issue. A SUV fits in your primary parking spot, but do you also have storage space, preferably where someone can’t just drive off with it, for say a landscape trailer?

        And if you have an expensive bike aren’t you worried about it being exposed to the elements or someone stealing it if it’s exposed on the back?

        And “comfortable to ride in” is subjective. I find just about every car I’ve ever been in as uncomfortable. Just about every SUV I find is very comfortable, due to the higher seating position.

        1. Scott Walters

          Solid point on the higher seating position. By “comfortable” I meant ride characteristics (smooth, tight cornering), not comfortable chair.

          The storage of a small trailer is very easy, assuming you have any sort of garage. I just backed mine in, stood it up on its back, and looped the tongue into one of those big bike hooks screwed into a wall stud. It only took about 2 feet of garage length. The small car still fit just fine right behind it.

          The trailer and a small car fit thus into the single primary parking space just as easily as a SUV.

          The bike locks to the rack, and it’s designed to get wet. It gets wet when I ride it in the rain. Of course, my bike is probably at least as old as you are…I got it when I was a junior in high school, in 1984 – used. It still runs great, with bi-annual tune-ups. I figure I ride it mostly for exercise, so the extra 10-15 lbs over a modern bicycle is actually a benefit, not a liability. By now you are probably realizing that I’m a really cheap guy.

          Presumably if one needs a big trailer, one has really big stuff to haul around, and thus probably has a place to park the big trailer. I don’t have big stuff, so only a little trailer.

      2. commissar

        small trailer has about half the weight rating of an f150. plus, most hatchbacks are NOT rated for towing. the transmission and suspension can’t handle it. there’s a reason why people don’t just use them.

  3. Justin Zicarelli

    Doesn’t have to be a micro car or even a hybrid to be both fuel and space-efficient. A 40mpg Honda Fit is probably more than enough car for the vast majority of motorists.

  4. Josh

    In regards to the ““Medium-speed Electric Vehicles” that were referenced in this article, I’m currently located in Columbus OH and these/those large 8 person gulf carts are used constantly as vehicles in this first ring suburb called Upper Arlington. It was shocking upon first seeing them in so much use outside of the retirement communities of the south that are known for it.

    For clarification, this suburb is fairly dense with urban portions – around 35,000 people – about 3 miles from downtown – but with a median income of $110,000….

    Seem to be almost toys for the teenagers and hip dads, roaming from expensive home to expensive home, not actually as transportation. But seeing as these roads aren’t a part of any gated communities or anything crazy, I see the validity.

    Wild stuff.

  5. Daniel HartigDaniel Hartig

    A lot of the reason that micro-cars don’t really exist in the US is various automobile safety standards. See here:

    There is a curve of safety versus environmental friendliness, and I’m in no position to judge where we are on that curve. At some point, increasing required safety standards has diminishing returns, while the mass required for a vehicle to maintain so many airbags or crumple zones of whatever starts to eat into the vehicle’s fuel efficiency. I don’t know if we are there yet, but I do suggest that both the Bolivian minibus would not be NHTSA approved for commercial operation with more than 10 people; and that the BMW tripod car won’t pass modern crash safety standards.

    1. Monte Castleman

      So the point of the article is that if you need to own a big truck because you haul stuff on occasion, you should also buy (and find space to park) a mid-sized sedan and a micro-car, just like if you own a hammer drill because you need one on occasion you should also own a drill press and a small cordless drill?

      1. Daniel HartigDaniel Hartig

        If you haul stuff on occasion, and ‘stuff’ is not a 6 ton horse trailer with horses, and ‘on occasion’ is not weekly, then you should get a 4 cylinder Tacoma with a trailer hitch. There is literally no other non-agricultural reason to get a larger personal truck. If it doubles as a work truck, you can always get building suppliers to deliver loads over a couple tons.

        1. commissar

          ok… i worked at home depot for a while. most pickups can only handle half a pallet of concrete. we had some contractors frequently come in with larger trucks and trailer buy 3 pallets at a time. and we also had homeowners come in and buy half a pallet of tile, leave with their suspension completely squashed.

          1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

            The basic point is that full size pickup trucks are one of the top selling vehicles in the US and a small percentage of people actually need them more than a few times a year.

            1. commissar

              plenty of people use them/ need them. you just don’t think they do. people want a more versatile vehicle. they don’t/can’t ahve 2-3 different vehicles. I also am fairly sure you’re underestimating the occasions in which a pickup is needed/easier/more useful.

          2. Daniel HartigDaniel Hartig

            I built a 90 foot brick wall at my old house. I have a 4 cylinder Tacoma. I paid $200 for delivery for all the bricks and cement (I used pre-mixed in bags, cheater). I also had to pay over $3k to backfill the wall with 35 yards of dirt. Altogether, that was two loads an F-350 could handle, plus one more an F-350 could not handle, for a job that took me months to finish.

            All other masonry jobs I have done with my Tacoma + hitch. I picked up 1.5 tons gravel to underlie the wall that way, plus another two tons of topsoil so I could replant a lawn. And yes, a ton in back of a Tacoma squashes the suspension, but my ~10 year old truck has probably done it a dozen times with aggregate, mulch, topsoil, etc. Two tons in a trailer is no problem, as long as you balance the trailer correctly. I’ve pulled a 3.5 ton boat and trailer up a boat ramp with a rear wheel drive, 2.4L Tacoma that only weights 5300 lbs. A small truck can pull a lot.

            If I was a full time mason, I would pay for the big truck. But even for as big a job as this one, I spend more money to buy a cement mixer than I did for delivery (not counting the 35 yards of backfill).

  6. Frank Phelan

    If my recollection is correct, Menard’s rents pick up trucks at a pretty reasonable rate. I haven’t need any sheetrock or plywood since my old man stopped driving and sold his truck, but if or when I do need another 4′ X 8′ sheet of something, it will be cheaper for me to rent a truck for 30 minutes than to own one.

    With on line purchasing and Taskrabbit like services available, not having a large vehicle is realistic for many.

    This reminds me of the argument against electric vehicles, which it has been said are not for everyone. Nope, electric vehicles are not for everyone, and they don’t need to be. If you frequently haul around a lot of bulky and/or heavy loads, by all means, get the truck. But most of us don’t.

    Many two vehicle households can easily get by with one smaller vehicle in addition to a larger vehicle. It’s not necessarily a case of acquiring an additional vehicle.

    Usually I find more open minded thinking on I’m surprised more commenters are not looking at this in a more broad minded fashion.

    1. commissar

      well, the rental pickups are only half ton. that doesn’t go very far when considering building materials. probably ~1/2 a room of drywall. maybe a third of a deck of lumber.

      1. Frank Phelan

        Right. I was thinking primarily of a few sheets of plywood. I see Home Despot can deliver concrete, lumber, dry wall, and riding lawn mowers. Fees are $9, $35, or $79 depending on conditions. Since most people don’t add a deck or finish a basement more than once per year, for a lot of families it’s reasonable to forgo an SUV and use a delivery service on the rare occasions they need it.

        1. commissar

          try mulch, ikea furniture, TVs, etc. lots of bulky items. and delivery is usually booked weeks in advance, and requires that a semi can get in, or is permitted in your area.

  7. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Another alternative is to have the big SUV for when its needed but then ride a bicycle for most local transportation

    Owning a second vehicle (in addition to an SUV/Truck) is too expensive an undertaking for most people. Besides the up front cost of the vehicle there is very considerable xtra cost in maintenance and insurance and then depreciation. For many people there is also the problem of where to park them. A bicycle as a second vehicle is massively less expensive.

    Perhaps one day we’ll get to the point where car sharing makes it easier and more appealing to have a smaller car and then rent/share a larger vehicle only when needed. As Monte said though, it has to work for people. Getting the vehicle has to be hassle free, the cost low, and the vehicle needs to be clean and offer the amenities that people want. Getting there is going to be a tall order. The reality of the car-share/rental model is that on a per mile and per month basis it’s quite expensive (compliments of renters that don’t take good care with the vehicle) and so for many people it is either less expensive or not much more expensive to own the larger vehicle and not have the hassles of rental/share.

  8. zory

    This discussion really highlights the need for us to start thinking of transportation from a group point of view, rather than from an individual point of view. With regard to personal vehicles, it’s easy to think in terms of personal needs, and very difficult to think of the overall effect on the group. In this case, individuals deciding what is “best” for themselves has lead to the opposite effect on the group.

    I argue that this dynamic has lead to the current situation we have now, which is a huge over capacity in our personal cars / trucks. If the thought process that we use to choose personal vehicles includes transporting things like: picking up 4×8 sheets of plywood, hauling bicycles, big boxes, or whatever else, it becomes very easy to come to the conclusion that a bigger vehicle is “better.” Add to that the belief (which is debatable) that bigger vehicles are “safer,” and it’s easy to see why there are so many vehicles that are too big on the roads.

    Instead, if we think of the increased risk and impact on the whole group, it is easier to see the error of this type of thinking. (I understand that many people disagree, this is my personal conclusion.) What impact do larger vehicles have on things like; collision influence on things they hit like people and animals, greater wear and tear on infrastructure, higher pollution amounts, greater consumption of physical space, etc…

    Certainly there are folks out there who have real, and really reasonable, uses for larger vehicles, but based on the number of empty SUVs, pickups and all types of cars on the road at any given time, we can see clearly that there are far more people who simply believe they need these larger vehicles than there are those who really, truly need them.

    1. Monte Castleman

      The empty SUVs, pickups, and all types of cars on the road during the weekday are probably hauling IKEA furniture, wood chips, bicycles, and towing boats on the weekend. Those people have a real, reasonable need for them even if they can’t afford or don’t have space to put a second smaller vehicle to drive to work during the week.

        1. Monte Castleman

          I don’t know anyone with a pickup, minivan or SUV that never needs it, even if only on weekends.

          Most people that spend that kind kind of money don’t do it just to be able to show other people how big their vehicle is.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            Never, no. But for example, we have a small SUV which is almost never used for hauling furniture or towing. Once or twice a year I get some mulch. I once got some sod. But I’ve done both of those in my smaller car too and probably could get that stuff delivered.

            I guess I took the point of the article to be that we often don’t really think about the right tool for the job or whether we can get by with a smaller option. If you’re regularly hauling and towing and whatnot, then fine. But I honestly think most of us do those things only occasionally.

        2. Monte Castleman

          If you want to show off to the world your expensive taste in vehicles with something you obviously don’t need, you drive a BMW or Audi, not a Ford F150 or a Chevy Equinox.

Comments are closed.