Are Smart cars smart? The pros and cons of microcars


[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

It’s no secret that I dislike automobiles, or rather Chicago’s over-dependence on them. Privately owned autos, especially big ones, contribute to all kinds of problems in our region, including traffic deaths, congestion, climate change, obesity and urban sprawl. Car parking gobbles up valuable land, with Chicago’s on-street parking alone occupying an area roughly the size of Hyde Park, not to mention the hundreds of acres used for parking lots. The first Mayor Daley carved up the city with expressways and allowed Louis Sullivan masterpieces to be razed for garages, and an eight-lane superhighway cuts off residents from one of our city’s greatest assets, the lake shore.

On the other hand, there are understandable reasons why Chicagoans might want to purchase an auto, as opposed to occasionally renting one or using a car-sharing service. These include long commutes to distant neighborhoods or suburbs that might be daunting by other modes, the ability to give rides to friends and family, the need to haul gear around town, road trips to Wisconsin and more. I do believe there’s such a thing as responsible car ownership, and it’s possible to include driving, along with walking, cycling, transit and cabs, in your toolbox of transportation modes.

But a large percentage of Chicago car trips involve only one or two occupants. So for those who feel they need to own a car, could two-seat “microcars” like the Smart car, a Mercedes-Benz product, help mitigate some of the harmful aspects of driving? These tiny vehicles, measuring about eight feet long by five feet wide, go against the grain of America’s traditional “bigger is better” mentality.

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