The phrase “the future of transportation” tends to conjure up visions of hyperloops, self-driving cars, and flying taxis whizzing through and between cities. But what if the next chapter of urban mobility instead gives a starring role to … the golf cart?
It isn’t crazy in the slightest. In 2015, researchers at Harvard Business School investigated whether Tesla, the poster child of automotive innovation, offered a truly disruptive model for transportation. Their conclusion: A “souped-up golf cart”—not a Tesla—offered the most transformative potential. Indeed, these puttering vehicles, most often associated with leisure and affluence, just might provide a pathway toward safe, affordable, and entertaining rides for the masses.
In case your closest contact with a golf cart involves Rodney Dangerfield honing his golf swing, here are some basics. Carts can be either gas-powered or electric, typically costing around $10,000, give or take a few thousand. They generally weigh 500 to 1,100 pounds and travel under 20 mph, making them significantly lighter and slower than a car. A roof provides protection from the sun; an optional plastic enclosure can keep users dry when it rains.
The Atlanta suburb of Peachtree City offers a lesson in golf carts’ transformative power. Now with a population of around 38,000, Peachtree City was chartered in 1959 as a series of subdivisions linked by footpaths as well as traditional streets. A few residents began to use golf carts on the footpaths to hop between neighborhoods, and many more joined in after the city paved the pathways to be 10 feet across. Although cars are banned on these multiuse paths, those using a golf cart are welcome, along with people on foot or riding a bike or scooter. Today, Peachtree City has around 100 miles of paths, which form a comprehensive network linking neighborhoods and destinations, complete with tunnels that dip underneath streets and roads.
Peachtree City Mayor Kim Learnard says that her town now has more than 10,000 registered golf carts among its roughly 13,000 households. Golf carts are not regulated by the state, but according to city rules anyone 16 or older can operate one, even if they don’t have a driver’s license (children 12 to 15 can do so if accompanied by an adult). Insurance is optional but encouraged by the city.
The golf cart has become so central to Peachtree City’s identity that it’s featured on the official city logo. “Our cart used to have golf clubs, but four years ago we got rid of them,” Learnard told me. “We decided we’re more of a golf-cart city than a golf city.” (Peachtree City is home to three golf courses.)
Learnard said that most residents still commute by car, but that the carts have replaced automobiles for many short trips to a restaurant, school, or friend’s house. “Golf carts are a quintessential part of the quality of life here,” she said. “You put the family in a golf cart and go to the park or the splash pad. Or you go out for ice cream, or with your spouse to get a cocktail.” The golf carts have proved popular with teenagers; many use them to get to and from high school. Residents frequently personalize their vehicles with souped-up radios and jerry-rigged storage. “It turns out you can do a lot with a couple milk crates and bungee cords,” Learnard said.
With palpable enthusiasm, she reeled off a list of golf carts’ advantages over cars: They provide accessibility for residents who aren’t able to drive; they enable local shops to expand parking capacity (golf cart spots are significantly smaller than those for cars); the electric models are quiet and don’t pollute. She is even convinced that they have made her town friendlier. “If you’re on your golf cart and you see your neighbor doing yardwork, you’re going to pull over and chat,” she said. “You’re never going to do that if you’re in a car.”
Although Peachtree City was an early golf cart adopter, other places in the United States have jumped aboard this gently moving bandwagon. In the Villages, a massive 55-and-over community in central Florida, the vehicles are central to daily life (and, apparently, casual hookups). It’s no accident that golf carts are a mainstay at retirement centers; they offer affordable, enhanced mobility for those who struggle to drive or walk. The elderly also face disproportionate risk of injury or death in a crash, and golf carts are less likely than cars to harm them.
Golf carts are also widespread on Catalina Island, 47 miles off the coast from Los Angeles, and Bald Head Island, a village in North Carolina’s Outer Banks that has banned automobiles. With their relatively light weight, golf carts are well-suited for such environmentally fragile places. And the vehicles are popping up in urban areas too, such as Scottsdale, Arizona, and Tampa, Florida, where rental services cater to locals and tourists alike.
Still, golf carts aren’t a scalable transportation option everywhere. Although smaller than cars, they still take up too much space for a dense metropolis like Chicago or New York City that is better served by transit and bikes (even if a recent April Fools gag about replacing all cars in Manhattan with golf carts got people genuinely excited). And although golf carts work well in mild or hot temperatures, they are hardly ideal for a Minnesota winter.
But golf carts could be a promising form factor for many places that lack the density to support high-frequency transit service. Few such communities offer the golf cart–friendly networks of Peachtree City or the Villages, but existing streets could be retrofitted to keep users safely separated from heavier, faster motor vehicles. Better yet, such protected lanes could also serve other lightweight, emergent modes, like e-trikes and quadricycles, that travel at comparable speeds. California has already created standardized signage for so-called “neighborhood electric vehicles.”
“If we repurpose street pavement for multiuse paths, there is an enormous amount of space we can use,” said David King, an urban planning professor at Arizona State University.
As communities consider their post-pandemic future, now might be the perfect time to reallocate that street space. “If there is a shift toward working from home, it’s going to put enormous pressure on improving our neighborhoods,” King said. “As long as our transport systems are oriented around the commute, the golf cart is not going to work. But if I’m at home, going anywhere within five miles on a golf cart can be competitive with anything else.” Even if residents still use an automobile to travel long distances, a golf cart—which costs a fraction of the $48,000 price tag for the average new car—could be a second vehicle of choice, used for short trips around town.
Along with safe places to ride, golf carts will require regulatory clarity to expand beyond a niche transport mode. Should they require insurance? A driver’s license of some kind? Even Peachtree City has struggled to navigate the legal landscape. “One guy got pulled over for driving his golf cart erratically, and he was charged with driving without a license,” Learnard, the mayor, told me. “But he fought the charge, saying he didn’t need one in Georgia—and he won. That’s how we learned you didn’t have to have a license according to state law.” That experience led Peachtree City to enact its own driving rules.
Beyond street redesigns and regulatory tweaks, golf carts require Americans to do something that federal officials struggle with: envision a future that doesn’t revolve around the car. In as auto-centric a country as the United States, that requires considerable imagination, especially in the suburbs. But towns like Peachtree City—and entire countries like the Netherlands—show that people will gladly leave the car at home if it’s easy to get around on a smaller, safer vehicle that’s both affordable and fun.
If we’re ready for it, a better future of mobility is right there waiting for us. You can catch a glimpse at your local golf course.