THE NEW HOUSING – A PLACE FOR MICROCARS
Modern technology is providing us with new methods of personal mobility such as electric cars and scooters, but we have yet to properly consider how microcars might contribute to achieving both a low carbon economy and compact efficient settlements, writes John Deaton
What are microcars?
As the name suggests, these are small electric powered cars. Typically, they measure 1.2m x 2.5m and can carry two persons plus baggage. They use a quarter of the power of a ‘standard’ electric saloon and can be charged overnight from a 13A household outlet. They can have a top speed of 90km/h and a range of up to 200km. Models include the Citroen Ami, Toyota C+Pod and Nimbus. Launched in 2022, the Microlino will soon be available throughout Europe. All these cars are inexpensive to purchase and to run.
Planning for the future
The National Planning Framework (NPF) forecasts that Ireland will continue to experience significant population growth, with an expected increase of around one million people, above 2016 levels, by 2040. Compact growth that sees the renewal of existing settlements, rather than continued sprawl, is a key priority of the NPF.
The National Sustainable Mobility Policy (SMP) 2022 sets out a strategic framework for active travel and public transport to 2030 to help Ireland meet its climate targets. This includes preparation of guidelines for sustainable and compact settlements.
The SMP envisages that communities are well designed so as to move towards more environmentally friendly modes of transport, such as walking, cycling or using public transport. It seeks the enhanced energy efficiency of vehicle technology through improved vehicle efficiency and clean fuels.
The Climate Action Plan (CAP) commits to increasing the fleet of EVs and low emitting vehicles to 945,000 in order to meet the required level of emissions reduction by 2030. Nearly one in three private cars will be an electric vehicle. These are currently envisaged as being electric versions of our existing range of cars. Effectively, this would involve the change from gas-guzzling cars to electricity guzzling ones. There is increasing concern that the electricity grid will not be able to cope with the energy demand generated by these cars.
Ireland has a dispersed settlement pattern. Public transport can never have the capacity and flexibility to cope with this. ‘Active travel’ implies wellbeing and good health but for many, it is part of an ableist policy which excludes not just the physically compromised and the elderly, but also those who have physically demanding jobs. And it rains a lot in Ireland! The reality is that most people will continue to need personal mobility.
The NPF seeks a continuation of the tiered approach to residential density. Densities for cities, metropolitan towns, large towns, small and medium sized towns, rural towns and villages vary from 300 dph to 25 dph (dwellings per hectare). Medium low-density housing is put at 40-50 dph.
The Climate Action Plan (CAP) seeks to change the way we use our road space – reduce the total distance driven across all car journeys by 20% and walking, cycling and public transport to account for 50% of our journeys. The regulations will help accelerate the uptake of electric vehicles, creating and enabling infrastructure to achieve the government commitment of nearly 1 million electric vehicles by 2030. The emphasis in residential planning is now firmly on the side of increased residential densities and sustainable travel.
Housing schemes with reduced or no car provisions are beginning to be planned. This is being done in advance of achieving an efficient and functioning public transport system. The much-vaunted plan for Dublin’s new ‘City Edge’ project recognises that achieving car-free status is a long-term objective and that provision should be made for a certain amount of car parking (albeit at a reduced level).
The microcar estate
Having designed many housing schemes, both public and private, I have found that the requirement for car parking and vehicular access has been the most profoundly negative factor in the process.
Typically, the standard has been for two cars per dwelling. On-curtilage parking for one car was preferred, if not mandated. For reasons of security, remote parking in groups away from the house was discouraged.
Roads were frequently to be 5.4-6m wide allowing for kerbside parking. This inevitably resulted in the typical arrangement of road, footpath and protective verge. Providing a massive circle for turning the bin lorry was often insisted upon. All of this mitigated against making safe and accessible urban spaces.
With microcars, the opportunities for improvement in estate planning would be significant.
What might this look like?
• Saloon cars could be prohibited
• Car parking could be limited to visitor and shared hire cars located at the perimeter of the site
• The only requirement for roads would be provision for a vehicular circulation width of say 4m (for two microcars to pass or for public service vehicles). This would be through communal open space/courtyards with no need for footpaths or verges
• On curtilage or pull-in parking would require a depth as low as 1.5m.
The diagrammatic plan shows one example of what a scheme might look like. Houses are grouped around a courtyard which would be 16m wide (there is an emerging consensus to reduce the current 22m space-separation standard). The elimination of saloon cars would make for a safe and pedestrian friendly courtyard. The parking requirements for microcars would have little impact on the space.
By replacing the traditional hierarchy of roads and footpaths with shared courtyards, the microcar plan would make for an improvement in residential density. I estimate that a microcar scheme could result in a saving of 10%-15% of land used for housing compared to a car accessible scheme. This would optimise land use and a more economical development.
Pros and cons
The obvious disadvantage of a microcar scheme is the lack of provision for the traditional 5-person family car, but in this regard we should take into account:
• There could be shared hire cars available for hire on the periphery of the estate
• Most car journeys are done by one person over a short distance
• A household could afford to have two microcars for the price of one family car
• Modern living envisages a range of transport options including walking, cycling and public transport
• Use of the family car often alternates between household members
• The nuclear family is no longer the only type of household.
Microcars are not expensive – a quarter to a third the cost of an electric saloon and half the cost of a petrol model. An increase in housing density would result in a lower land cost per house. Which brings me to this suggestion – could the saving on land cost be passed on to the house purchaser in the form of a subsidy or, better still, could there be a free microcar with every house?
For this article, I have confined my analysis to housing schemes, but I believe that the benefits of having microcars in our transport mix can apply to other types of schemes and circumstances. One has only to consider how less congested our cities would be and how less carbon would be emitted if microcars were to replace our current vehicles.
When it comes to transport policy, we need to recognise that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. For many people, independent personal mobility will continue to be a priority. If microcars are to be part of the solution, we need to look at planning our towns and cities to accommodate them and to best exploit their advantages.
John Deaton is a Co-Founder of Deaton Lysaght Architects. He is now in private practice as a RIAI Grade One Conservation Architect and Alternative Dispute Resolution Consultant
Michael McDonnell Managing Editor of Irish Construction Industry Magazine & Plan Magazine