Does size matter in the city of the future?
Will microcars ever catch on in the West?
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.
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
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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