A city where golf carts are a teen status symbol

With over 9,000 registered golf carts and nearly 100 miles of tar paths, Peachtree City, Ga., can now claim the title of the "golf-cart capital of the world." Which city did it recently overtake? No surprise, really: Sun City, Ariz.

But there's a difference between the preferred transport of Arizona's retired Sansabelt crowd and the commuter culture of this expanding suburb 30 miles outside Atlanta. "In Sun City they've got all the old golfers, but this is where the youth dominate the golf-cart world," says sophomore Josh Riedel, exiting a four-wheeler.

Indeed, they do. On most days, hundreds of golf carts hum along the network of paths that has become known as "children's highway." The parking area behind McIntosh High School is always full of, not Jeep Wranglers and Volkswagen bugs, but E-Z-Goes, some with dice dangling from the rear-view mirror.

Peachtree is actually on the cusp of a quietly growing trend on the outskirts of America's cities – the rise of electric carts as a major mode of transportation.

To enthusiasts here, the town is weaning families from the internal combustion engine and pioneering a quiet, nonpolluting way to travel. But the crush of carts is also creating new traffic jams and raising safety issues. Just how old is "old enough" to be allowed behind the wheel of an electric cart?

"This is a very unique community, and the government here has traditionally been willing to experiment and take a progressive approach," says Maj. R.M. Dupree of the Peachtree City police force.

The extent to which golf carts have taken root in this city of 34,000 is most evident on the Fourth of July, when some 8,000 patriotically emblazoned golf carts snake past a local lake on their way to the fireworks.

For a suburban area such as Peachtree, the allure of golf carts is understandable. Simply, people like the image of children safely roaming about, legs dangling out of daddy's golf cart. The vehicles are also pollution-free, another value that resonates with suburban residents.

Certainly, the appearance of carts at schools and grocery-store parking lots here has been boosted by the growing popularity of Daimler Chrysler's new GEM car, an electric-powered cart that can travel at "street speeds" of up to 35 miles-per-hour.

Now, nearby communities like Tyrone and Fayetteville are creating their own path systems as the crush of Atlanta's urban growth approaches. What's more, city officials receive dozens of inquiries a year from communities across the country interested in developing their own golf-cart policies.

To be sure, few other American suburbs can match the extent of Peachtree's path network – which developers of new neighborhoods are forced to expand by local law. Over the years, the paths have become a secondary road system almost completely disconnected from the primary road network. With built-in bridges and tunnels, the miniature roads function as shortcuts between neighborhoods and, for teens, a quick route to the public pool.

But, in the wake of last month's decision to allow 15-year-olds with a learner's license to drive the carts as long as they are accompanied by older siblings, many are questioning whether the city has taken its experiment too far.

The consequences of the city council's vote were immediate. So many people paid attention to the decision that the paths were jammed with 15-year-olds the very next day – all illegally, because the ordinance didn't actually take effect until a week later.

The regular jam of four-wheel carts outside McIntosh High School worsened overnight. It's a situation complicated by the school's policy of not allowing students to park on the campus – there just isn't enough room.

Now, local businesses are feeling the effects. Congestion outside offices and retail stores in the area is worse than ever, and there have been complaints about bad parking and discarded fast-food cups and bags along the road.

Indeed, the carts have created a lot of work for the local police department. Today, the worst crime problem is kids stealing golf carts – over 90 percent of which eventually are found and returned.

And, if driver ed is part of the reason for allowing teens to get behind the wheel, many kids have a lot to learn. Already, some 50 citations have been handed out – at $46 a piece. Last Monday, a group of senior girls were seen unjamming the brakes on two carts in order to push them aside to create room for their own – a move that would be a felony offense in the real world. "Basically, all the police have to do in this town is chase teenagers," says Keith Cumbie, a teacher at McIntosh.

The cops have had to develop their own strategies to police this city's unique road system. They use gas-powered ATVs called "mules," souped-up golf carts, and a brand-new GEM car to patrol the winding paths. They've even been known to strap on rollerblades.

But it's teen traffic that remains the primary challenge of Peachtree's golf-cart system, and a problem that communities developing similar structures may also face.

"I think half the freshman and sophomore classes are driving them now," complains Whitney Hanlon, a senior. Adds sophomore Andrew Morton, "you got to get here early for a good parking space, or else you'll be walking."

Speaking of walking, people here admit that, at this point, it would be tough for Peachtree City kids to go back to promenading or even riding bikes to school. "That's not going to happen in this town," chuckles Maj. Dupree.

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