Sprawl, the Infrastructure Trap, and A Real World Solution (Maxi Taxi 9)

A Time magazine article by Leigh Gallagher highlights a problem that we deal with on a daily basis but that pretty much stays just below our awareness horizon. In the article Mr. Gallagher describes a professional epiphany of a town engineer with regard to town planning codes that exhibits itself as suburban sprawl.

The issue is simple; every piece of infrastructure that is built to support a community needs to be maintained. Infrastructure on a large flat scale, as is common in suburbs, inherently is larger per capita than in more compactly arranged communities and therefore more expensive to maintain. (Maritime, on the other hand, only incurs terminal infrastructure investment and maintenance costs. The maritime highway infrastructure is essentially free). The article describes how this sprawl results in unmanageable infrastructure maintenance costs, but the solution is all around us.

The Maxi Taxi concept addresses this issue by restricting transport width, and thereby reducing road width, garage widths (which actually reduce road frontage in many urban arrangements), drive way widths, etc. etc. and thereby containing infrastructure size, and, more importantly, infrastructure maintenance costs. While Maxi Taxi is a thought exercise, the concept exists in Japan as the Kei van and has spread all over the world. In our travels for Martin & Ottaway we encounter these vehicles on a regular basis since they are popular taxis in remote parts of the world and in countries and on islands with narrow roads.

During a recent visit to India, my family enjoyed the use of a Kei minivan on various trips around Bangalore. The minivan was owned by family of my daughter in law that lives in Bangalore. I might have confused our new extended family when I showed a strong preference for its use over other larger vehicles, but to me it was quite beautiful.

As the pictures show, it is less than five feet wide, but still carries eight passengers remarkably well and even allows me to sprawl with my daughters on the back bench. This older model is not a paragon of present day safety feature applications, but it more than does the job. Actually, when driving in convoy with wider cars, the skinny minivan often made it to the destination more quickly by taking advantage of traffic holes that did not fit the wider cars

The example we drove was made in India where they obviously fill a niche in a low income, crowded street environment. However, the car was Japanese designed and evolved from the Japanese Kei concept. The Kei concept was a solution to a problem. In Japan narrow streets and very limited parking made wide cars unattractive (and even antisocial) and resulted in tax breaks for cars that were smaller than regular cars. Kei cars were restricted in horse power, but, more significantly, also in exterior dimensions. Since 1949 these exterior dimensions have grown, but for quite a while now (since 1976), the width has stabilized at a little less than 5 feet.

That width has resulted in a range of truly useful vehicles and is evidence that an “artificial” restriction does not restrict innovation and barely restricts utility when appropriate restrictions are selected. Kei cars come in a huge variety of designs ranging from mini cars to sports cars to four wheel drives to minivans to trucks.

Increasing wealth and “modern” Japanese urban development have made the Kei concept less dominant, but the concept still lives on. It even has migrated to the US where second hand Kei trucks are sought after by private communities and on large farms as handy mission support vehicles. Imported Kei trucks are not legal for interstate highway use, but are allowed on all other roads in Oklahoma and Louisiana. Maybe it is time to restrict wide cars to interstate highways only; it would save us all a bundle.

For a full discussion of the Maxi Taxi concept visit the Maxi Taxi page.