I got all excited when I saw Farhad Manjoo had a review up of something called the Smart ForTwo, which is a backseat-less small car that can fit into even the scariest small parallel parking spots. “Ah-a!,” I thought, “People are beginning to wise up to a frustration that drove me out of driving and into bicycling, which is the clusterfuck nature of traffic and parking makes driving just plain miserable.” Plus, I have a pick-up truck, so I’m already convinced that a lot of people need no more than two seats. This Smart Fortwo actually has more storage space for luggage and groceries than my truck does without using the truckbed, something you often don’t want to do with something like a suitcase. But the fact of the matter is most cars out there are taking up a lot more physical space than the owners pretty much ever need—backseats that never touch a human butt, giant truckbeds that never haul a piece of furniture or a bag of compost. Massive engines that never get put to use hauling anything more than human beings. My annoyance at this trend far outstrips my environmental concerns. On a certain level, it’s also symbolic of the wastefulness of American life. I’m also easily annoyed by houses that have tons of square footage and the owners have to start being creative about filling it. I wish the sleeker, smaller trend in computers would spread out to other aspects of American life, but so far, big and garish seems like it’s here to stay. So any move in the right direction—prioritizing the compact, the simple, the maneuverable, the economical over the garish, the wasteful, and imposing—gets me all excited. And it does seem that the Smart Fortwo has very real advantages for maneuvering through traffic and parking. That’s good. Make those people in giant SUVs drool with jealousy as you slip into a nice parking spot with your itty-bitty car. It might open up your mind to other ways to get around that opt you out of the worst parts of traffic. Dismantling the concept that cars have to look a certain way, or that bigger is better, is all very good.
But upon reading the post in-depth, I found that this car just doesn’t even come close to being the innovation it looks like. The gas mileage is 33 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway, which is good, especially for the price of the car, but not revolutionary good. And if the ease of parking the thing just encourages people to drive more, it’s counterproductive. The fact of the matter is that it doesn’t lay any kind of sufficient challenge, outside of aesthetic, to the wastefulness of a car culture where people are using an average of like one gallon of gasoline to move one single human being 20 miles. Until we get around the wastefulness of so much energy used to move so little mass, we’re going to be stuck in this loop.