Narrow cars, smart buses, and the most popular ideas for making city transportation more efficient.

Collective wisdom.
July 13 2010 5:25 PM

Is It Time To Buy a Narrow Car?

The three most popular ideas for making city transportation more efficient.

Narrow car. Click image to expand.
Are narrow cars the wave of the future?

We asked you for ideas on how to create "Nimble Cities": plans to solve the increasingly pressing problem of moving people in and among the world's growing urban centers. You responded with ideas that ranged from spreadsheet-sober to borderline Where's My Space Age? But the voting has closed, and while Slate's intern army is still out tracking some absentee ballots in Miami-Dade County, we can safely enshrine the top three vote-getting proposals.

Like the right-wing political best-sellers on the New York Times list, this idea clearly had the hallmarks of being lifted by a targeted enthusiast campaign. Not only did it conspicuously outpace the other ideas (racking up 1,296 votes, more than twice the tally for the second-place finisher); it touts a branded product that garners regular media mentions and has also shown up in other crowd-sourced idea campaigns.

But let's take the idea on its own merits. The basic concept is that rather than trying to expand road infrastructure to meet traffic demand—a fiscal impossibility in many places—we should instead look for smaller vehicles that can more efficiently use the existing space. Hence the Tango, a twin-forklift-motor-powered micro-car that boasts fuel efficiency of 100 mpg, a roll-cage for safety, fans like George Clooney, and a host of potential benefits advertised in the submission: everything from increasing road and parking capacity to increasing suburban property values as commute times go down.

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This is actually not a new idea. So-called "micro-cars" dotted European cities in the postwar years (the Tango looks a bit like an amped-up P50) and continue to haunt the design studios of the major manufacturers (and race-car designers). The primary problem in the United States, where a 3,500-pound vehicle like the Volkswagen Tiguan can be considered a "compact" SUV, is consumer resistance. In an age when everything from coffins to theater seats is getting wider to accommodate the outward growth patterns of Americans, pitching a vehicle that, as its boosters note, is 5 inches narrower than many motorcycles, is always going to be a tough sell.

But as the amount of space dedicated to cars in cities continues to decline, as it is beginning to now, it only seems logical that car sizes will shrink accordingly. As the authors of Reinventing the Automobile argue, in cities there is less need for SUVs (the inventor of the Range Rover called urban 4x4 use "completely stupid") than what they call USVs—"ultra small vehicles." As they note, the "average traffic speeds in cities (below 20 mph) and typical daily driving distances for urbanites (less than 25 miles) provide significant opportunity for mass and cost reduction, compared with conventional vehicles that can travel 300 miles nonstop and can exceed speeds of 100 mph."

Our second leading vote-getter begins with a recognizable observation: "Somehow it always happens: traffic causes empty buses to cluster together at rush hour. After a long wait for a bus, I'm greeted with four empty buses and one super-crowded bus. What's up with that?"

Buses actually tend to bunch in twos more than threes, argue the authors of the aptly titled Why Do Buses Come in Threes? And the answer, they write, "is nothing to do with incompetent planning by the bus companies." Rather, bunching is a "simple fact." The problem is that no matter how rigorously scheduled the buses are, the arrival of passengers is inevitably a random process. More passengers, more boarding time, more time for the other (potentially empty) bus to catch up and have precisely no passengers to pick up.

 As "mchmiel," the poster of the idea, observes, so-called "smart elevators" are now deployed in high-rises and are said to boost efficiency by 50 percent simply by grouping passengers by their destination floor ("destination dispatch"), rather than filling cars with people going to a number of random floors.

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