By David Kushner, Wired Magazine
Joe Apichella in his replica 1934 Ford street rod.
Photo: Andrew Hetherington
It’s a brutally hot morning here at the Villages, one of the biggest retirement communities on the planet. But the saunalike central Florida weather doesn’t slow down the 77,000 seniors who call this place home.
On the nine softball fields around the development, smack-talking eightysomethings try to leg out a base hit. Graceful swimmers slice through the water in glittering pools. Near the Bait Shop bar in one of the immaculate town squares, line dancers shimmy in unison.
Villagers play hard. And they drive … well, they drive kinda slow. Because the ride of choice at the Villages isn’t a Lincoln or a Cadillac. It’s a golf cart.
The diminutive vehicles are the primary mode of transportation for daily life here. Residents can drive them just about everywhere they need to go. They whiz along 87 miles of trails, from the Walmart to the town squares, from the hospital to the archery range. When they have to cross the six-lane US 27/US 441 highway, no sweatâ€”they take the specially built golf cart overpass. "We don’t like to call them our golf carts," a retiree named Warren Cromer tells me. "They’re our second car."
Tony Colangelo, owner of the Villages Golf Cart Man.
Photo: Andrew Hetherington
Second cars with massive upgrades. Villagers have tricked out their carts to look like 1930s roadsters, fire trucks, and stretch limos. The hottest ride in town is currently a canary-yellow imitation of a Hummer H3 with alligator interior, undercarriage lighting, and a 1,400-watt stereo. The most obsessed drivers have spent upwards of $20,000 pimping their rides: Villagers trade up for bigger tires, swap computer codes to overclock their batteries, and hack their motors to bypass built-in speed caps. Standard carts typically top out at around 20 miles per hour, but a little tweaking can boost that to as much as 40.
Retirees who want ever more speed (and who still have their driver’s licenses) can buy so-called neighborhood electric vehicles, a burgeoning class of electric cars that are street-legal in at least 45 states. At a strip mall dealership called the Villages Golf Cart Man, owner Tony Colangelo takes me out back to show me a cherry-red NEV called the LC3 that I’ll be driving during my stay here. "Pretty sweet, huh?" Colangelo says.
My Lilliputian chariot boasts beige zip-down doors, chrome-capped 12-inch wheels, and a sloping front end with tiny round headlamps. It looks like a sidekick for Herbie the Love Bug.
If you ever wondered what the world would look like if we all ditched our cars, visit the Villages. Designed from the ground up as a golf cart community, it has developed into something even more compelling: a town where cars don’t isolate people from each other, but rather bring them together.
With a flick of a button on the LC3 dash, I whisk quietly out of the dealership’s parking lot and into the electric future.
Before the golf cart, there was golf. Lots and lots of golf. "Free golf for the rest of your life" is the marketing slogan here, and residents get unlimited access to 24 nine-hole "executive courses," with thoroughbred names like Churchill Greens, Pimlico, and Truman.
The first courses were built as a way to lure retirees to the small trailer park that Villages CEO Gary Morse‘s father bought here in the early 1980s. As the aging snowbirds flocked down for the free golf, the community grew around one founding principle: Everything would be accessible by golf cart.
The hottest ride in town is a canary-yellow imitation of a Hummer H3 with a 1,400-watt stereo.
Photo: Andrew Hetherington
Today, the serpentine golf cart trails dominate the Villages. On a full charge, carts can cover about 45 miles, more than enough to handle a day’s worth of leisure. Just about everything a retiree could need is contained within the 40 square miles of the community. Each neighborhoodâ€”or Villageâ€”is clustered around a recreational center, golf course, and pool. And it’s just a short ride to one of the 12 fishing lakes or 85 horseshoe pits or 115 bocce courts.
After a vigorous day of recreation, Villagers cart over to one of the two town squares for a night of drinks and live music. When I join the herd for happy hour at the nautical-themed Lake Sumter Landing Market Square, I find rows and rows of gleaming golf carts parked along the curbs. It’s like something out of Disney World or The Truman Showâ€”meticulously engineered and brilliantly detailed, all the way down to the harmonies of "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" wafting from the speakers overhead. The town would be easy to ridicule if not for the fact that the residents love it. For them, it’s perfect.
The cart-friendly design stretches far beyond this hub. Trails lead directly from the Villages to big chains like Target, Staples, and Starbucks, which line the nearby highways. Instead of parking lots crammed with minivans or SUVs, I see fleets of golf carts, often parked two or three to a spot.
This laid-back EV lifestyle is spreading. Other communities around the countryâ€”from the retirement enclave of Sun City, Arizona, to the all-ages suburb of Peachtree City, Georgiaâ€”are expanding and marketing themselves as cart towns. The secret to a successful community, says Peachtree City’s David Rast, is "getting the path system in before or as part of the development." Integrated into the fabric of a community, the carts cease to be icons of decrepitude and instead become a defining vessel, an icon of a new life. "It becomes more than transportation for a lot of people," says Gary Lester, VP of community relations for the Villages. "It’s who they are as a community." Indeed, it creates community. "If your neighbor is in his yard," Lester says, "you can’t drive by in your golf cart without waving and saying hello."
Art Plant hacked his Boston Red Sox-themed cart with a custom 10-to-1 gear ratio.
Photo: Andrew Hetherington
Joe Kobar, a peppy 68-year-old retired shop teacher from Scranton, Pennsylvania, is up early and ready to run errands in his EV cart: "Time to go to Walmart!"
Kobar belongs to the geeky underworld of Villagers who are spending their leisure years modifying their carts to look and behave more like cars. Kobar’s current project is a maroon and gold-trimmed replica of a 1934 Ford street rod. The $17,000 vehicle is authentically rendered, including a chassis that’s been stretched 8 inches to match the body style of the original Ford. The names of Joe and his wife, Janet, are painted in gold lettering on the hood. Kobar put his shop-class skills to use by adding a plywood enclosure on the back of the cart to house an extra battery. That power supply feeds regular 110-volt electrical outlets, allowing Kobar to plug in a Breeze Easy cooling fan during the summer (in lieu of air-conditioning) and a string of halogen lights during the holidays. "The kids just love it," he says.
Kobar has neat white hair and is wearing dark shorts, sandals, and a Hawaiian shirt festooned with sailboats. On a typical day, the Kobars might drive their cart to the health club, then spin over to the golf course or the air-gun range. The afternoon agenda might include a trip to the grocery store, where they load up the compartment under the hood with ice cream. "Being in one of these is like riding a motorcycle or a skateboard," he says. "Every time you’re in it, you feel a little bit more free."
The Kobars belong to the Villages’ equivalent of a Harley gangâ€”the Streetrod Club, a collection of 500 residents who share a taste for tricked-out rides. A few years ago the group anchored a chain of 3,321 carts, setting a record for the world’s longest golf club parade. Club member Art Plant, a lanky retired math teacher and statistician, drives a Boston Red Sox-themed cart with a custom 10-to-1 gear ratio to boost his performance on the hills. A satellite radio receiver on the dash provides the in-cart entertainment.
Just one problem: Some of the grannies tooling around in modified rides are technically breaking the law. Because not everyone in the Villages is satisfied with bumpin’ speakers and a custom paint job. Some are tweaking their rides to boost speed as well. According to Florida statute, hacking a cart to go faster than 20 mph changes the legal definition of the vehicle. The local cops aren’t driving around checking under everyone’s hood, but they will issue speeding tickets when an overclocked hot-rodder races by. "We try our best with our manpower," says Laurie Davis, a lieutenant with the Lady Lake Police Department.
Inquire at service shops around town and most mechanics say they turn away wannabe speed demons. "I don’t go anywhere near it," says Colangelo at the Villages Golf Cart Man. But quietly, a scruffy service technician at one garage schooled me in the options. "I can have this doing 35, 36, 40 miles per hour," he says. For $400 to $600, you can get bigger gearsâ€”adding another 5 to 6 miles per hour. A bigger engine will get you another few miles per hour. Larger tires, like the 12-inch fatties on my ride, can boost it a couple more.
Unfortunately, safety rarely keeps up with speed. And it doesn’t help matters that drivers don’t need a license to operate a standard cart. Dylan Galbreath, a local deputy near the Villages who also runs a 24-hour golf cart emergency-service company, tells me, "There are people who have DUIs who can’t drive a car but drive a golf cart instead." Some folks move to the Villages because they’ve lost their licenses in other cities or states and don’t want to give up their freedom of mobility. "I met an elderly woman who had an eye condition and couldn’t pass the vision test, and that’s why she moved here," one resident tells me. "We’ve got a club member who has MS," Kobar says. "They wouldn’t renew his license, so he comes down here and drives."
Joe and Janet Kobar with their modded cart.
Photo: Andrew Hetherington
At one point during my visit to the Villages, I zip past a spot where last year a woman was thrown from her cart and died. Seat belts are not required in non-street-legal carts; in fact, they’re not even installed. Some carters put them in anyway, but most people I talk with would rather go without for fear of getting trapped. (Because of the lack of nearby emergency care, crash victims have to be airlifted out of town for help.)
The larger neighborhood electric vehicles are designed to be safer. In addition to requiring insurance and registration, the rides sport a windshield, brake lights, seat belts, a horn, reflectors, a parking brake, turn signals, and a VIN.
The safer they are, the more retirees will drive them. And the more seniors drive them, the more the general population will too, says Nick Cappa, a spokesperson for Global Electric Motorcars, a major manufacturer of NEVs. He calls retirement communities the key to fueling awareness and adoption. "Other drivers are more apt to purchase an NEV after seeing retirees using them," Cappa says, "and then cities are more willing to create infrastructure that supports their use."
What’s more, though the NEV classification has existed for a decade, dealers and analysts report growing demand of late. The US government’s recent stimulus package offers NEV buyers a $2,500 tax credit (a third to half the cost of the vehicle). The branch of the Department of Energy that tracks electric vehicles estimates there are 75,000 NEVs on US roads.
But their use is limited, because few communities were designed with these vehicles in mind. And without proper infrastructure, NEV drivers can feel vulnerable. Despite the miles of golf trails in the Villages, there are some areas that require carts and cars to share the roadâ€”a fearsome proposition, as I discovered. On one road, all that separated me from passing cars was the thin white line of a diamond lane. When I made a wrong turn on a roundabout, an SUV left me choking on its dust.
It’s 9 am in the Villagesâ€”practically midday for the chipper residents who often rise at fourâ€”as I drive my LC3 down to the Colony Cottage. I’m due for a quick primer in pickleballâ€”sort of a Ping-Pong/tennis hybrid. I arrive to find dozens of fit retirees dashing around the courts, the ubiquitous row of shiny EVs parked outside.
Few communities were designed with NEVs in mind and lack the infrastructure to keep NEV drivers safe.
Photo: Andrew Hetherington
There will be more carts fighting for space here soon. While the rest of the country wallows in the recession, homes are still being built and sold in the Villages at a rapid clip. The population of the community is expected to hit 100,000 by 2014.
The Villages embodies what environmentalists have been waiting decades forâ€”a glossy future powered by electric vehicles. The slightly messy reality, though, is that it’s not powered by pristine futuremobiles but by gaudy, overclocked golf carts.
But the lesson of the Villages isn’t just about the vehicles we’re drivingâ€”it’s about where we’re driving them. The future of transportation should be focused on the quick jaunts that make up most of our day-to-day driving.
The Villages is for people who’ve lived long enough to know that what they want now is a warm breeze in a quiet, open rideâ€”going fast enough to hit both the golf course and the Walmart in the same afternoon but slow enough to take in the scenery along the way.
As my octogenarian opponent deftly whacks the pickleball past my reach, I look up to catch a glimpse of the future on the horizon. It’s a gray-haired guy with a backward cap, cruising in his cart past a brand-new community center. A golden retriever stands on the passenger seat, tail wagging, and an American flag is displayed proudly right where the gas tank should be.
Contributing editor David Kushner (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote about Russia’s cosmonaut training facility in issue 16.09.