The Year 2019 has taken a great many beloved things from us. Caroll Spinney, Deadspin, Patrick George. It also took Smart from North America, both in direct sales and via carsharing, which matters more to some people than others.
But I, for one, am bummed about this. Small cars are good. They’re generally cheaper, more fuel-efficient, and more fun to drive than their behemoth counterparts of the SUV/truck variety. And they’re far more practical than they get credit for. Sure, lots of people need two rows of passenger seats, but lots of people don’t, especially younger urban dwellers Smart was targeting. We have a weird set up in the automotive landscape where there are too many cars that try to be all things to all people. All the damn crossovers and SUVs that are basically identical to 99 percent of the population.
So it was a welcome, if all too rare, occurrence that Daimler actually tried to target a specific market with a car that fit their specific need, a need no one else was really going after. I was 100 percent here for it.
In particular, Smart had one strong selling point. Because of their diminutive stature—a 2008 New York Times article presumably written by a journalist just prior to lunch described one parked between two much larger cars as “a nub of jam between two slabs of cake”—they were easy to park simply because they were small.
But Smart cars were specifically designed to be not just easy to park, but amazingly easy to park, a unique feature no other American vehicle could match. If we were being glib with modern parlance, we’d call it a “killer app,” but that would just make me want to die so we’re not going to do that.
Point is, the Smart car was specifically designed to be shorter than most cars are wide, so it could pull right into curbside spaces nose-to-curb.
Unfortunately, for Smart cars and society, drivers were typically not allowed to do so. In most American cities (here’s an example from San Diego), cars have to be parked so the right tires come within a certain distance of the curb, typically two feet or less (or the left tires for parking on the left). This effectively banned perpendicular curbside parking, the very kind that made Smart Cars an amazing proposition to urban drivers.
This negates the Smart’s best attribute that was not only good for Smart drivers but for cities overall. Three Smart cars could fit in the curb space one Ford F-150 occupies with 20 inches to spare; and yes, people drive pickups in the city because we are a sick society. But even compared to more humble sedans, the Smart was a significant improvement (partly because sedans keep getting bigger). For example, you could fit five Smarts parked nose-to-curb in the space of two Accords.
Abolishing this absurd ban against nose-to-curb parking would not have had any catastrophic consequences. There’s no reason to believe this would make parking more dangerous. In fact, I’d venture to guess the opposite. Anyways, we don’t have to guess, it is mostly allowed in Europe and it doesn’t seem to have caused any kind of motor vehicle apocalypse.
There is a more precise and longer story about the legality of perpendicular parking I’m going to regale you with but feel free to skip this paragraph if you don’t care. There has been a good deal of confusion over whether it is legal to perpendicular park jurisdiction by jurisdiction. In 2014 the BBC noted “no one is sure” if it is legal to park that way, but it seems most police default to allowing it as long as the Smart fits. It was definitely illegal in Pittsburgh as of 2008 which the Tribune called “stupid.” Same with Newport, Oregon. However, it was determined to be legal in McAlester, Oklahoma, because the cop who was called on the scene said: “the car was clearly not in the way of anyone or anything.” The upshot to all this is most American cities have explicit rules against perpendicular parking, and when they don’t, it’s up to the police’s discretion whether to ticket.
The easy solution here would have been for cities to modify the traffic laws to explicitly allow perpendicular parking when the vehicle is shorter than a certain length, say 80 inches (for those curious, a Ford F-150 is 79.9 inches without mirrors). If that had happened shortly after Smart made its North American debut—let’s say around 2010, just to pick a nice round number—it would have helped make our cities slightly better places. It wouldn’t have been revolutionary, but it might have been enough to make Smart more popular and perhaps save them from North American oblivion. Watching someone effortlessly pull their Smart into a tiny spot nose-to-curb while circling the block looking for somewhere to parallel park a Camry may have been enough to convert some folks.
But no, what kind of country would we be if we passed sensible laws? What kinds of cities would we have if the vehicle laws were actually modified to promote smaller, more sensible cars? Not American ones, that’s for sure. Go big or go home, baby. Or, at least, to Europe.