Thursday, May 9, 2013

Golf Cart-chella: Mobility Options for an Aging Population in the Coachella Valley

In a city like Portland, it is easy to imagine mid-rise Transit Oriented Development conveniently located next to the rail and bus lines. But what happens when older adults live outside the dense urban framework? Are older people who live a suburban lifestyle expected to move to the nearest transit station? One cannot expect everyone to make that change. For those who choose to age in place, other solutions need to be considered.

Until recently, golf carts did not have much place other than on private roads, behind gated communities and on the lush golf courses. However, they are becoming an innovative transportation solution, catching the attention of many older adults and city leaders as viable means of primary mobility.

Figure 1: Golf carts for mobility

Golf carts operate at speeds of 15 mph or less, function on electricity, are plugged in at home for a low cost charging and can be purchased for a fraction of the price of an automobile. The low speeds ensure safe travel but without compromising many vehicle conveniences such as a stereo, storage areas for groceries and extra seating to accommodate passengers. Many would argue that the problem of having golf carts on primary roads does not lie in the travel mode but the infrastructure supporting it. Golf carts fall into a grey area, as they are too big for most sidewalks, and too slow to share the road with most vehicle traffic.

But change is coming. Approximately 100 miles east of Los Angeles lay the Coachella Valley, a perfect petri dish to implement and study golf cart travel as a legitimate transportation mode choice. The region is host to numerous golf resorts, low-density developments and most importantly, a significant population of elderly adults.

Figure 2: Location of the Coachella Valley, Source: [4]
Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert, two cites in Coachella Valley, currently have golf cart plans in place. Their solution is to create a network of legal on-street and on-sidewalk golf cart paths that vary in width from 8 feet to 10 feet [1]. The golf cart paths connect desired destinations such as grocery stores, doctor offices, shopping outlets, and even golf courses. Rancho Mirage is particularly ripe for golf cart transportation as according to the 2010 census, 8,000 residents (44%) of Rancho Mirage are over the age of 65 [2].

Figue 3: Shared golf cart and bicycle path in Rancho Mirage, Source [Author]

Figure 4: The City of Rancho Mirage Golf Cart Map (2012) Source: [1]

But, as with any transportation network, it is important to look beyond the city limits. The Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG) has embarked on an ambitious plan to construct a valley-wide multi-purpose path [3]. The 52-mile path would be shared by golf carts, cyclists, and pedestrians alike. And as driver reaction times and other motor functions slow down with age, having older adults out of the automobile driver seat, off the main roads and onto a separated cart path is something that could benefit all roadway users.

The path is estimated to cost over $70 million to construct and would not only benefit golf cart users but boost bicycle ridership and other forms of active transportation. If constructed, the Coachella Valley can serve as a leading example of how smart transportation planning can ensure safe, sustainable, and secure transportation options for an aging suburban population.

Thanks to Josh Capps for reviewing this blog post.





  1. Wonderful post Max. My question would be, will we end up seeing the same us vs. them attitude that seems to be created by any alternative transportation infrastructure i.e. bike lanes. How soon will automobile drivers be complaining that the golf carts are not paying their fair share.

    It will also be interesting to see how different segments of the valley respond to this. Unless it has changed the Coachella Valley is a highly segregated area. You have the extremely wealthy area of Palm Springs and then gradually move down the income brackets to you get to Indio that is very poor and mostly immigrant population.

    This could actually be a great way to help people age in place. It will take generations to retro fit our poorly design suburbs with our ageing population. This could be a nice interim step until we can come up with long term solutions. While it obviously would not have the health benefits of everything in walking distance, at least it will give better access to older people who don't want to move away from where they are currently.

  2. Is there an age-restriction on who can operate a golf cart on the road, i.e. only older adults? Certainly an interesting idea. I would be curious to see the demographics of golf cart users, especially related to race and income. Like John, I also thought of wealthier and whiter areas of the valley, and how this idea seems disproportionately feasible for these more privileged communities.

    Other questions that came to mind were related to licensing. As you mentioned, golf carts operate at a much lower speed, which is potentially safer for both the driver and the general public. However, if an older adult had their license revoked, would that person still qualify to drive a golf cart? What would insurance look like? Certainly a new and innovative idea to mull over. Thanks, Max!

  3. Cool post, golf carts seem like a great way to keep the "mobility" without the car.

    The California DMV offers some clarification about licensing and insurance. California differentiates between a golf cart (limited to two seats and 15 mph) and a "Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV)." NEVs travel between 20 and 25 mph, and must have a VIN and meet federal safety standards.

    License, registration, and insurance are required for NEVs, but not for golf carts. NEVs can go on any road with a 35 or under speed limit, while golf carts must stay on locally-designated-ok roads with speed limits of 25 or under.

    DMV Link:


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