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My sweet new ride is a golf cart

More community, fewer carbon emissions — why “low-speed vehicles” are taking over towns

By Matt Crossman

I recently moved from one St. Louis suburb to another. Like all moves, it was a nightmare. The movers damaged our old house and our new one, the air conditioner didn’t work, the toilets wouldn’t flush, our brand-new washer leaked, and our brand-new dryer wouldn’t run. We discovered we had brown recluse spiders as housemates, including one in my daughter’s bed.

As massively annoying as all that was, what bugged me most about my new home was the golf carts circling all around it.

My new hometown, Cottleville (population: 5,439 in 2020), is the golf cart capital of Missouri, or at least it looks and sounds like it. All day, I hear the high-pitched be-e-e-e-e-p announcing that one is inching backward out of a garage. My wife and I take evening walks around the park, and we typically have to get out of the way of a half dozen, and we see more than that. They cruise residential streets, the greenway, the road into downtown, and more.

Golf carts are every-damn-where, and every-damn-body in Cottleville wanted to know if I would soon be flitting around in one of those abominations of the asphalt, a vehicle with all the power of a stick blender and none of the aesthetic beauty.

My antipathy toward these plagues of the pavement was born of experience. If you’re used to traveling around the suburbs in a car, the golf cart feels like the enemy. You get stuck behind one as it putters at 12 mph when you’re in a hurry, and you’re always in a hurry. You pull into what you think is a prime parking spot only to find one in it, hidden by cars on either side. You’re not one to judge … but is it necessary for that yutz to paint their golf cart in their college’s colors? Who needs a golf cart that seats eight? And don’t get me started on golf carts modified to look like Corvettes.

If it’s not the carts, it’s the people driving them. While walking on the greenway, I saw a golf cart driving toward me. A woman sat in the passenger seat. She held her right hand out; in it was a leash, attached to which was an itty-bitty yap-yapping ball of hair.

Yes, she was walking her dog from her golf cart.

That’s not the funny part.

The funny part was in the driver’s seat: another dog … a big white one, whose head was in the exact right position and whose body was the exact right size that it looked for all the world like it was driving. It took me several seconds to figure out what was happening: The woman was using her left hand to hold the steering wheel and her left foot to work the gas. (In a golf cart, brakes are entirely unnecessary until you absolutely need them.)

As much as the golf carts annoyed me, I was also curious. People LOVE golf carts, plunking down $11,000 minimum for a new one, and they drive them, as I may have mentioned, all over the damn place and all the damn time. And it’s not just in Cottleville: In communities across the country, golf carts are increasingly being used for ordinary errands and slow rolls down main streets. They’ve even been named a potential tool in the fight against climate change. What did people know that I didn’t? I decided to find out by living the Golf Cart Life myself for a while.

I called my local golf cart rental place — I hadn’t known such a thing existed — and asked them to deliver a four-seater. It cost $300 for a week with a $100 drop-off fee. I decided to call it the Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse. Ha, no, it’s after a Rush lyric.

With the Rocinante parked in the garage next to my minivan, surrounded by the detritus of a suburban life, I wanted to punch myself. All I needed was socks with sandals and I’d be a walking caricature of a life I swore I’d never live.

(Looks down at feet. Oh, no.)

I expected to mock the Golf Cart Life endlessly.

Instead, I fell in love with it.

There’s no precise definition of a “golf cart community”; that’s what Cottleville calls itself, but it’s not like we reached some official threshold of carts per household or anything. But across the country, in more communities than you’d guess, golf carts are becoming an ever-present part of the landscape. The Villages, a famed retirement community in Florida, was developed with golf carts in mind as it transitioned from a trailer park to a community larger in square miles than Manhattan. In Cottleville, golf carts are cleared for use on pre-existing greenways, and new trails have been built to connect subdivisions with each other and downtown. In Peachtree City, Georgia — which has 13,000 households and 11,000 golf carts — the 100 miles of trails that are now frequented by golf carts were initially meant for walking.

My 15-year-old daughter never asked me to take her for coffee in our Pontiac Vibe or Kia Sedona. But once we had a golf cart, she wasn’t mortified to be seen sipping lattes with me.

I’m using “golf cart” to encompass a wide range of vehicles, including gasoline-powered carts, electric carts, and carts that have nothing to do with golf at all. This includes “neighborhood electric vehicles,” “low-speed vehicles,” and “personal transport vehicles.” In Cottleville, I never see golf carts that actually hold clubs — they all are fitted with rear-facing benches where the clubs normally go.

Golf carts have been common for years on university campuses, and in airports and manufacturing facilities. As early as 1963, baseball teams used them to drive relief pitchers from the bullpen to the mound. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the use of golf carts outside of golf courses expanded as more industries realized their utility. Residents have been driving golf carts around Peachtree City since the early 1970s, when the City Council passed a resolution making them legal on streets.

But now, we’re in a golf cart boomtime, says Keith Simon, the CEO of Waev, a company that manufactures “electric personal transport vehicles” with removable doors and seat belts. Simon recently dug into industry numbers and discovered that sales of golf carts for use on golf courses were stagnant. But sales of golf carts sold not for golf were soaring, by double digits per year for most of the 2010s. “And then the pandemic just moonshot it — made it grow even more,” Simon says.

Simon sees several reasons for this — a greater interest in electric vehicles, a growing awareness that such vehicles exist, a desire to explore local shops and destinations.

Golf carts are also touted for reasons that get transportation geeks and environmentalists excited: slower speeds in walking areas (top speed is often 12 to 15 mph), low-carbon footprint, small profile. A typical four-seater is 4 feet wide and 9 feet long — about half as long and wide as my Kia Sedona.

This fits a broader transportation trend: using vehicles that provide “agility” that cars can’t, said Sara Wadia-Fascetti, the director of the Beyond Traffic Innovation Center at Northeastern University. Other examples are bikes and scooters.

“You can squeeze through small spaces,” she says. “You’re not restricted to the road network that somebody laid out to you.”

All of that makes sense, but after living the golf cart life, I see the biggest appeal of the suburban golf cart as simple, profound, and counter-cultural: slow-speed connection.

In a modern society slavishly devoted to being faster and more efficient, golf carts allow us to reimagine where we go, how we get there and what we do along the way. The explosion in golf cart sales testifies to the power of life in the slow lane.

The Rocinante sat in my driveway for 12 seconds before my 12-year-old daughter begged for a ride. Navigating a paved greenway, I maneuvered left and crossed over a mud-brown creek. At the exit of the bridge, I arrived at a T and turned right. That took us to a park with an amphitheater, at which Cottlevillians park dozens of golf carts to watch live music every other Tuesday.

I returned to the greenway and traced a lap around two lakes. All the while, my daughter chitter-chattered the way kids do when they’ve had six Cokes or they’re up early to go to camp or, God help you, both.

She smiled as I drove.

I smiled as she drove.

And everybody — seriously, every-damn-body — smiled as we drove by them.

By the time I returned the Rocinante to the garage that first day, I had given in to the weight of endless smiles and fully embraced the lifestyle.

I drove the Rocinante to get ice cream, to the grocery store, to church. I used it to take my wife on a date to a food truck court. I took my girls for rides for no reason at all. My 15-year-old daughter never asked me to take her for coffee in our Pontiac Vibe or Kia Sedona. But once we had a golf cart, she wasn’t mortified to be seen sipping lattes with me.

Was I just imagining the positivity? I called Tom Kirk, the executive director of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments. He oversees the CV Link, a walking, biking, running, and golf cart trail system that connects six cities in California. He pointed out that driving a golf cart fosters human interactions.

“If you’re driving at 50 miles an hour, in an air-conditioned car, with the music blaring and paying attention to generally something other than driving, you’re not really connecting with people,” Kirk says. “Sometimes you avoid connection. You avoid looking at the person next to you at the stop sign.”

That’s impossible in a golf cart. You can’t help but look at the golf carts around you, even if you’re just wondering how that dog can hold the steering wheel considering he has no thumbs.

Kim Learnard, the mayor of Peachtree City, told me about her community’s “sunset club.” Every night, golf cart owners gather on the shore of a lake. There they watch the sky swirl with blue and purple and red and orange and yellow. “Every once in a while, this guy goes out there with bagpipes,” she says. “It’s so cool.”

Good vibes are good for commerce, which might be why local businesses often welcome golf carts and cater to them. In Peachtree City, it’s normal to drive your golf cart through the drive-through, Learnard told me. Downtown Cottleville has two golf cart parking lots, and some businesses designate spots just for them.

As I pulled the Rocinante into one of them, on that coffee date with my daughter, an elderly man asked where he could get (paraphrasing) a sweet-ass hot rod like the Rocinante. I preached the golf cart gospel to him.

Most golf carts are electric. The Rocinante runs on gas, which Learnard told me is typical of rental carts, because renters are newbies, more apt to get stranded after depleting the battery on an electric cart. Gas-powered carts get up to 40 mpg, making them more fuel-efficient than a compact car. A fully charged electric cart can go 30 to 40 miles between charges, but I doubt any owner ever gets close to that. In my neighborhood, owners park their carts in their garage and leave them plugged in, which means they are perpetually powered up.

Golf carts came to Cottleville because the former mayor, Don Yarber, pushed for them. When he died, his funeral included a golf cart procession that ran 50 deep. He sounds like an interesting dude. The local dog park is named after him. His nickname was “Mayor-juana” because he advocated for medical marijuana after his wife used it as treatment as she fought breast cancer.

And that’s not the only way he was green.

He saw golf carts as a part of a larger effort to make Cottleville more sustainable. Transportation’s future is electric, whether that’s cars, bicycles, scooters, or golf carts. Gas engines are, as one source put it, “larger, faster, louder, stinkier.” (Counterpoint: One of my friends who has a gas-powered golf cart uses an additive that makes his cart’s exhaust smell like cotton candy, one of many available scents.)

In truth, though, zero people I talked to in Cottleville or beyond said they drive golf carts to save the environment. Joan Fitzgerald, a professor of urban and public policy at Northeastern University who focuses on urban climate action, coined the term “random acts of greenness,” and she says that applies here. It’s hard to make the case that a family that has two cars, buys a golf cart, and keeps both cars is making a big environmental impact.

Still, golf carts could make a difference, the way one electric car doesn’t matter but one million do. Let’s imagine all 11,000 golf carts in Peachtree City are electric vehicles made by Simon’s Waev. Let’s imagine those carts are used for trips that would otherwise be taken by cars. Assuming a five-year replacement cycle, Waev’s calculations show that those 11,000 drivers would collectively save 78 million pounds of carbon.

That’s great and all. But it’s not why I love the Rocinante. This is: While we are saving the world — intentionally or not — we are also saving the community.

In Cottleville, I could live nearly my entire life without my car, which means I would live my entire life in my town. The Rocinante can take me to Target, Home Depot, a half-dozen fast-food places, sports bars, 1970s-style fern bars, wine bars, the dentist, and much more. I’ve come to think of the golf cart as a kind of rolling front porch. Along the way, all the faces I see, all the smiles I generate, all the dogs I puzzle over, all belong to my neighbors.

My new love for golf carts is not blind. They won’t work everywhere; I wouldn’t want to drive the Rocinante in the cold or anywhere hilly. Some communities simply don’t want them: If I take the greenway to the park in the next town over, I roll up straight to a sign banning golf carts. Naysayers and public safety officials note that golf cart drivers often ignore the accepted rules of driving.

And the critics have a point.

There are no settled standards on requirements to operate a golf cart. In Cottleville, you must be a licensed driver, but that rule is not strictly followed — not even by me, though I won’t let my kids drive alone. In Peachtree City, 12-year-olds can drive with an adult, and 15-year-olds with a permit can drive solo.

I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw someone driving a car and drinking alcohol at the same time. But I can tell you the last time I saw someone driving a golf cart and drinking alcohol at the same time (July 4, 2022). I’m guessing the koozies I see people drinking out of probably don’t all have soda in them, either. I’ll just say drinking and carting is stupid and dangerous and leave it at that.

Golf cart accidents are far less common or fatal than car crashes, owing largely to carts’ dramatic lack of speed. Peachtree City requires that golf carts have a maximum speed of 20 mph. The Rocinante would need a rocket booster on the back to get anywhere near that.

Peachtree City had 73 reported crashes in 2021, more than triple the total in 2013. The key word, Learnard told me, is reported. If you hit the throttle instead of the brake and crunch your garage door, you probably won’t report it, especially if you spilled beer on your socks and sandals. “There really are crashes, and there are injuries,” Learnard says. Since 2013, Peachtree City golf cart crashes have caused 205 injuries and zero fatalities. A study of crashes in The Villages — which one expert guesses has at least 70,000 golf carts — found an average of 136 crashes with injuries per year from 2011 to 2019, with 65 requiring hospitalizations and nine resulting in death or disability.

The most serious injuries are often due to ejections. Some carts have seat belts. I suspect persuading users to wear them would be difficult, no matter how obvious the danger might be.

To combat the rise in safety issues, Peachtree City uses “speed bumps, enforcement and cameras,” Learnard says. “If we don’t get a handle on this, as far as I’m concerned, our 15-year-olds will be on notice,” she says.

No joke: I am faster on my bike than I am in my golf cart, and that’s not because I’m fast on my bike. At first I thought that made the case against golf carts. Now I know it makes the case for golf carts.

At a Neighborhood Night Out at our subdivision’s pool — where I counted nine golf carts, including a six-seater with a beautiful brushed metal paint job — I talked with John Stiles, who serves on Cottleville’s Board of Aldermen and owns The Cottleville Caddy Shack, a golf cart business.

Stiles wants to build Cottleville’s golf cart community beyond smiling, waving, and being baffled by dogs in the driver’s seat. He has plans for scavenger hunts and decoration competitions and obstacle courses. “We want to do drag races,” he says. “I’m a little weird, so we don’t just want to find out who the fastest is. I’ve had four people come in here and tell me they’re probably the slowest cart in town. Let’s find out.”

I know the results already: The Rocinante would DOMINATE. A race to see who is slowest exemplifies the Golf Cart Life. That slowness creates interactions we otherwise miss. One evening I sat outside my house talking to neighbors. My friend Matt, out for a ride in his golf cart with his wife and two girls, coasted to a stop. He and the rest of my neighbors started instructing me in all things golf carts: radios, heaters, lights, seat belts. I was incredulous when they discussed golf cart brands. “Wait — you know the difference between them?”

Matt looked at me in mock disgust. “Rookie,” he spat.

But I was learning, fast, how much there was to love about going slow. On my first day with the cart, I invited friends to meet us at the local ice cream joint. One asked if he could drop his daughter off at my house so she could ride with me in the Rocinante, a #peakdad moment. I shared my golf cart with kids; I shared conversation with adults. I wished every night could be like that.

Driving home, I cruised behind an empty parking lot. A cool breeze hit my face. I had the strange sensation that I was on vacation. I did not want to go home. The Rocinante is pathetically slow, yet I wished it was slower still, or that my house was farther away so the ride would last longer.

Rookie mistake: I took the short route.

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Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis. He has written for Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, The Athletic, Men's Health, and The Washington Post.


Illustration by Ben Boothman


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