- Image from Microlino

Does size matter in the city of the future?

Will microcars ever catch on in the West?

3w ago
19.5K

I was speaking to my local barista yesterday. We were discussing commuting. You see, she currently gets to work by bus but wants to take matters into her own hands. ‘A bike?’ I ask. ‘No, too dangerous’, she says. ‘An electric bike?’, I counter. ‘No, too expensive.’ ‘What about an e-scooter?’, I suggest. ‘Same as a bike, if you have to go on the road, it’s too dangerous.’

One of the great barriers to better urban mobility is road safety for non-car users. The government in the UK is well aware of this, which is why it’s made efforts to build infrastructure for small personal vehicles, like bikes, over the last few years. The efforts have been increased ten-fold during the pandemic, last Summer councils across the UK installed pop-up cycle lanes and, meanwhile, the Department for Transport published ‘Gear Change’ outlining their vision to improve cycling and walking, especially in cities.

However, you can split every single road in Britain in half, but you still wouldn’t address the real problem...

We love big cars.

Earlier this week, a BBC article placed a spotlight on the use of SUVs in cities. In a report they covered by the New Weather Institute, it was said that three-quarters of all SUVs sold in the UK are registered to people living in towns and cities. The largest SUVs are most popular in three London boroughs - Kensington & Chelsea, Hammersmith & Fulham, and Westminster.

Often it’s popular to call big cars in the urban areas ‘Chelsea tractors’. And while perhaps when the trend first began that label was funny, now it increasingly seems like an aspiration for many urban families - made accessible by easy finance.

The result is cities, like London, are now congested by bigger vehicles than it ever has before. Not to mention, 95% of the time these vehicles are left parked on the streets. All this makes it a treacherous place for single road users.

However, is there a possible solution… As new requirements, such as the expanded ULEZ in London, get introduced and many motorists switch to electric or hybrid power, is now the time for a microcar resurgence?

It would surely make sense for our towns and cities to start working towards having smaller more practical cars within their walls. Why would we swap out large fossil power cars for big electric powered ones? Big cars don’t get rid of congestion, make roads safer and, even if they’re EVs, they can continue to pollute the air - as they kick up dirt particles.

And there’s reason to believe the tide could change, never before has there been so much choice and hope in microcar manufacturing.

From the trapezoid looking Citroen AMI, which in France can cost just $20 euros per month. Or the new brands, ME, which boasts a range of 150km and is already in the UK, and also the gorgeous-looking bubble-shaped Microlino concept, which can apparently do 90km per hour.

As battery capacity improves, there’ll certainly growing options for anyone that fancies their pick of easy to park, cheap to own electric runabouts.

However...

Microcars aren’t new, they have been around for decades. If they didn’t catch on before, why would they now?

Arguably, the needs of cities and people have changed significantly since we first heard of ‘Smart Car’ or the ‘G-Whiz’. And a defining example of this is the irresistible rise of China’s microcar, the Wuling Hongguang Mini EV, which is now their country’s best selling vehicle.

The Wuling Hongguang Mini EV

The Wuling Hongguang Mini EV

While I believe there will be many people who do buy micro electric cars over the next few years, larger vehicles are here to stay in the UK unless the government steps in. And there’s a simple explanation.

Freedom of choice

In cities nowadays there are so many ways to move around. A bus, train, moped, underground, taxi, bike, electric bike, skateboard, rollerblade and scooters.

And, even if you don’t have a car, it can only take about 5 mins to get access to a shared fleet.

So why would anyone buy or need a micro EV? What function would it serve?

Yes, you could say the same about the huge Chelsea combine harvesters outside people’s flats. But, at least they are more functional.

People also forget that cars are a statement. Nobody is buying a Tesla because they believe it’s the best performance car going. They get one because it’s cool, has an auto-pilot and more gadgets than the USS Enterprise.

If you are doing well at work, got a few quid in the bank, perhaps climbing the property ladder, taking a greater interest in paint shades and wine; then you will never buy a microcar enthusiastically. If you do, nobody will sit next to you at dinner parties, girls won’t fancy you and your mates will laugh.

Why? Because size still matters. And vehicles, like our clothes, homes and furniture, are an extension of our personalities. Anyone who desires to drive around in a Tikes car over the age of 5 is out of kilter with the human need to impress our peers.

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Comments (8)

  • Great article Tom! I appreciate all the points you made, however as someone who has rode an electric scooter 4000 miles across the United States, I disagree that they are too dangerous! I've taken my Segway Ninebot MAX up winding mountain passes in Colorado and Wyoming, with traffic whizzing by and no shoulders on the road, and never felt like I was in any danger at all! Plus they are fun and portable! I could not recommend you giving an E-scoot a try more!

      27 days ago
    • Thanks Graham. I certainly think e-scooters can be safe and great fun if the infrastructure is good. In the US you have very wide roads, same in parts of Europe. Here in London, the roads are uneven, tight and car-dominated. A trial is due to...

      Read more
        26 days ago
  • If I lived in France I would do anything to get an AMI

    Or if possible, import one

      26 days ago
  • I'm inclined to think they will. EVs are best, the lighter they get, and these little cars are all you need most of the time. While some are more style than substance, pretty though they are, others and likely many yet to appear, will be more practical, faster and more comfortable. Think of them as you might think of the 'second car' to the main one you have today... the runabout. It does everything the big car can do, but is cheaper and needs less love and cash spent on it. Then imagine not actually owning your 'main car'. You might lease it or just rent one when you need one. You might go by robotaxi instead, either in a limousine or van, depending upon your needs that journey. You might even order a lorry that drives itself and you to your destination, because no license is required for being a passenger. These small cars may well end up being our only 'owned' vehicles, with all other journeys being by 'pay-per-use'.

      25 days ago
  • I think government incentives for smaller footprint EVs can only go so far if they are seen as inferior methods of transportation. I can such a thing backfiring if they become too uncool and taint the reputation of small electric runabouts as being only for poor people.

    Meanwhile in the US, there's not much of an effort being made at all. Protected bike lanes have shot up around the place, but most people don't actually live in the cities they're commuting into and a tiny electric microcar would be miserable on the gigantic interstates you'd have to drive on.

    But since people still like to drive big vehicles and a full sized pickup is just a little too long for most places downtown, they buy Jeeps instead because they have a smaller footprint.

      24 days ago
  • I love micro cars, they don't really work for me because of where I live, however a lot of the people I know who live in cities do seem to like the idea of a microcar

      26 days ago
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