With a population of around 10,000, Wendell, North Carolina, promotes itself with the motto: “Small Town, Big Charm.”
Considerably enhancing the town’s appeal, according to mayor pro tem Jason Joyner, is its widespread use of golf carts – on the roadways as well as the fairways. Which is one of the reasons Joyner has helped rewrite several town ordinances making golf carts legal to drive on many of Wendell’s streets.
“We’re a bedroom community of Raleigh,” Joyner said. “We’re a small town. We’ve got a main street. It’s nice. But you know, it’s less than 20 vendors. So when mom and dad get in the car with kids, maybe they leave Wendell. Our thought has been that if we make downtown and being in town an experience that is fun, we’ll keep them here.
“My daughter loves to jump on the golf cart and go get ice cream. I’m probably not putting her and her sister in car seats and getting in the car and driving down there to find parking. Whereas it’s a fun adventure in the golf cart. It’s another way to enjoy the town.”
“… if you see someone riding a golf cart, they’re generally smiling … a golf cart is instant happiness.” – Jason Joyner
Riding in a golf cart, Joyner believes, can be good for the soul – particularly away from the golf course. “Outside of a golf course, if you see someone riding a golf cart, they’re generally smiling,” he said with a chuckle. “They might be frowning on the golf course, but off the course, a golf cart is instant happiness.”
The popularity of carts around Wendell has exceeded Joyner’s imagination. “I thought we’d have 20 or 30 golf carts ultimately,” he said. “We’re well over 160 now.”
In many areas of the United States, off-course carts – dubbed personal transportation vehicles (PTVs) by manufacturers – have transcended into a common thread in many a town’s social fabric. With fuel prices skyrocketing to record levels, instead of driving gas-guzzling cars to and from the neighborhood pool, young families are more often taking their more fun and environmentally friendly golf cart. Older folks may feel more comfortable using their cart to run errands, sometimes even finding themselves treated to more convenient and less obtrusive parking access.
Riding a golf cart can be one big party, whether it be Democrat (left) or Republican (right).
“We have a new brewery, and when we did downtown parking around the brewery, we had designated golf cart spots,” Joyner said. “It’s a cool thing.”
Given their burgeoning appeal as a safer, more eco-friendly means of connectivity like walking and running or biking and scooting, golf carts are now street legal in numerous cities and towns. As in Wendell, some towns have rewritten local ordinances so people can drive their carts on the streets.
“I went to school to be a town manager,” Joyner said. “One of the things I saw while I was in school was how the coastal communities were doing golf cart ordinances. I thought it would be a really cool thing for Wendell. We worked through a couple of different policies but came up with a policy that would work for us.”
Golf carts were introduced in the early 1930s as a means of assisting disabled golfers. It wasn’t until the 1950s that they went more mainstream. Today, increasing popularity of golf and off-the-course uses has spurred estimated sales of about $1.3 billion annually, with expected growth to $1.8 billion by 2028, according to Portland, Oregon-based Allied Market Research.
If you don’t happen to own your own golf cart, rentals are available at spots throughout the country.
The 21st century beckoned a new dawn for the industry. Golf carts became a common sight ferrying people around southeastern U.S. beach enclaves, coastal campgrounds and vacation communities.
Bald Head Island is nestled at the eastern and southernmost tip of North Carolina’s lower barrier islands near the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River. On a daily basis from nearby Southport, people catch ferries to and from an island where no cars are allowed, only golf carts and bicycles – both of which can be rented by visitors for the day.
One of Bald Head’s most beloved annual events is its 4th of July Golf Cart Parade, during which dozens of carts arrive dressed up to be judged in categories such as “patriotic,” “tacky tourist” and “anything BHI.” To the delight of cheering, enthusiastic crowds, the cart caravan travels from Marina Harbor Park to Old Baldy, the state’s oldest standing lighthouse, and around the island in an hour-plus holiday celebration.
Eventually, the golf cart trend spread into small towns and city enclaves across the country. Numerous U.S. cities now allow golf carts on actual roads – generally with speed limits of 35 mph or less – as long as they have basic safety equipment such as lights, blinkers, seatbelts and a horn.
At The Villages, a massive 130,000-person retirement community in central Florida, golf carts are the dominant mode of transportation. Many couples move to The Villages with two gas cars, sell one, and replace it with a golf cart, keeping the other for longer trips. Most of the houses in the community are designed with one regular-sized garage and another smaller one for a golf cart.
The Atlanta suburb of Peachtree City, Georgia, with a population of about 38,000, is home to three golf courses and around 100 miles of golf cart paths that form a comprehensive network linking neighborhoods and destinations, complete with tunnels that dip underneath streets and roads. The town now has more than 10,000 registered golf carts among its roughly 13,000 households, and the golf cart has become so central to Peachtree City’s identity that it’s featured on the official city logo. “Golf carts are a quintessential part of the quality of life here,” said Peachtree City mayor Kim Learnard.
The vehicles are popping up in urban areas, too, such as Scottsdale, Arizona, and Tampa, Florida, where rental services cater to locals and tourists alike. Downtown Tampa recently launched a rental service for street-legal golf carts. Lakeland, Florida, 60 miles east of Tampa, launched a one-year pilot program called “The Squeeze” to ferry residents around town on eight-seater golf carts.
“We want to change the perception of public transportation here in Polk County,” said Erin Killebrew, director of external affairs for Citrus Connection. “We want you to be able to get on and have that experience with the operator and be able to joke around with them, have an open-air experience.”
Away from the golf course, both electric and gas carts and similar-sized units called Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) or the heftier Low-Speed Vehicles (LSVs) have become utilitarian transportation tools for off-road sporting endeavors such as hunting, fishing and beach exploration. They are similarly prominent across sprawling settings such as airport terminals, campgrounds, university campuses, transportation stations and resorts.
“We have a ton of farmers who come in here,” said Cheyann James, an associate with BJ & Son Custom Golf Cars in Thomasville, North Carolina. “They want gas carts because they don’t want to deal with plugging them in. But most all of your beachgoing people and people who stay in campgrounds want electric. More places allow you to have electric, because they’re quieter.”
Today’s myriad advancements and technological innovations can bump golf carts into the pricing stratosphere, often setting a buyer back more than their first automobile. New, custom-built models range from $6,000 upwards to as much as $20,000 or more, while used or refurbished carts can go for as little as $3,000 or less and up to $10,000-plus.
Some cart owners like to showcase their style with personalized colors, seats, wheels and other accessories. Others elect to trick out their carts with fancy tires and spinner rims; others with custom graphics or painted in the colors of their favorite sports team. There are four- to eight-seat limo units sporting headlights, turn signals and sound systems more powerful than some cars. There are air-conditioned and heated carts; enclosed vehicles with coolers or even refrigerators powered by the cart’s lithium batteries. Carts can be souped up to look like Model Ts, Thunderbirds, fire trucks … if you dream it, they can deliver.
While older models were constructed of mostly fiberglass, today’s golf carts are made of sturdy yet lightweight molded plastic and typically weigh between 500-1,100 pounds. The battery-operated units are versatile and economical. They reduce emissions and are quiet, emitting a barely perceptible hum. For electric carts, battery maintenance tends to be the biggest expense.
Joyner says that away from the golf course, as much as anything, golf carts allow for good old-fashioned Southern hospitality and social interaction.
“I get to know my neighbors, because if I’m riding my car, I might wave at you, but I’m not stopping my car to get out and talk to you,” he said. “When I’m on the golf cart, I just take my foot off the accelerator when I speak. We have more side-of-the-road conversations with neighbors just because you’re out there. Everybody’s always happy when they’re riding around on a golf cart.”
Top: Off-course golf cart riders hang loose in Newport Beach, California. Photo: Leonard Ortiz, MediaNews Group, Orange County Register via Getty Images
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