Low-speed chase: Why Ontario communities are pursuing a new kind of vehicle

They’re small. They’re slow. And they’re electric. Proponents say low-speed vehicles can help the province go green — but will Ontarians get behind the wheel?
By Josh Sherman - Published on Jul 06, 2021
Haldimand County has purchased a two-seat LSV for bylaw officers and a four-seater for community events. (Courtesy of Haldimand County)

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There’s a new type of vehicle hitting the streets of Haldimand County, but Mayor Ken Hewitt doesn’t necessarily think locals will be excited to see it around town.

The southern Ontario municipality’s first low-speed vehicle began cruising its more urban areas last month. Classified by Transport Canada as an electric vehicle with a top speed of 40 kilometres an hour, among other criteria, it’s a cross between a tiny car and a golf cart — and bylaw officers will be using it for routine enforcement trips. “If they do see this [LSV] coming around from bylaw, they probably don’t want to because it’s going to have a ticket attached to it,” Hewitt jokes about the newest addition to the southern Ontario county’s fleet. 

Haldimand County is among the first in Ontario to embrace the tiny vehicles, but other local authorities are increasingly looking to green-light them on local roads. That’s thanks to a 10-year provincial pilot project, launched in 2017, that allows municipalities to pass bylaws to legalize LSVs on roads with speed limits of no more than 50 kilometres per hour, something Haldimand did on April 6.

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Although proponents laud the buggy-like four-wheelers as a potential eco-friendly option for everything from recreational trips to public transportation, some worry that LSVs — which don’t feature airbags and will share the roads with much larger vehicles — pose a safety hazard and aren’t a meaningful green alternative to major issues such as congestion. 

In Haldimand County, Hewitt sees multiple benefits to LSVs. First, operating one of the vehicles — which plug into a standard 110-volt wall socket — should be cheaper for the county than running a gas-powered car.

“If ultimately it reduces our cost, then that’s a good thing for taxpayers, and if it reduces our carbon footprint, then that’s good leadership from our end and demonstrates to the public that we’re doing what we can to protect the environment,” he explains, noting the two-seater cost about $20,000 brand new last year (its rollout was delayed by COVID-19). “And it was an opportunity to showcase, I guess, the next generation of vehicles,” he says of the decision to pass a bylaw legalizing LSVs, which still require drivers to have a licence and insurance and must have proper windshields, seatbelts, blinkers, and a slow-moving vehicle sign affixed to the back. 

left: a vehicle resembling a golf cart; right: a small vehicle
LSVs range from cart-like vehicles to vehicles that resemble micro-cars. (Facebook/ECartsOntario)

In addition to the two-seat LSV for bylaw officers, the county also purchased a four-seater that Hewitt has different plans for. “It’s intended more for community events,” he says. “And we thought of even possibly looking at an alternative way of providing public transportation in a smaller community.” Haldimand County isn’t alone: Transport Canada tells TVO.org via email that the federal agency “is also actively collaborating with provinces and territories to conduct research and develop safety guidelines for the testing of low speed automated shuttles.”   

Following Haldimand’s lead, Kristal Chopp, mayor of neighbouring Norfolk County, brought forward her own motion — which passed on June 15 — to direct municipal staff to draft a similar bylaw. She hopes to have it in place before summer’s end. “It’s a great alternative mode of transportation, just for moving about within the community itself,” she says, touting the green benefits. Unlike Haldimand, she says, Norfolk doesn’t have the budget to purchase any LSVs. However, she hopes that residents will try out the technology themselves and that, perhaps one day, the municipality may be able to purchase its own.

The drafting of Norfolk’s new bylaw is welcome news for local retiree Dave King. The 80-year-old Port Dover resident had been asking Chopp to legalize LSVs since he purchased his own last summer for about $22,000. He hadn’t realized at the time that it was up to municipalities to opt into the provincial pilot project and that, without a local bylaw, they remain illegal. “It’s very cheap to operate,” he says. “It’s fun, it’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s clean.” Yet the upfront purchase cost, he suggests, has hindered uptake. “In the future — when they get a little bit better priced — people will have them,” he says. “They have to come down in price a bit.”

Just days after Haldimand passed its bylaw, Lambton Shores did the same — but the council decision wasn’t unanimous. “I can speak personally: I disagree with them,” says Mayor Bill Weber, who voted against the April 13 motion. “I think they could be a hazard, especially when they’re going on a provincial highway, but council thought that this would be a good place to try.” He notes that a stretch of provincial highway cuts through the county and that, because the speed limit there lowers to 50 kilometres per hour, the diminutive LSVs could find themselves competing with transport trucks. 

Weber’s concern echos one of the risks outlined in a 2008 National Research Council Canada report on LSVs: “There may be a substantially higher driver injury and fatality rate amongst LSV operators due to the relatively low mass of LSVs compared to other vehicles on public roads.”

Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, highlights some other potential issues. “When you have vehicles that have very different capabilities on the same road — especially in terms of speed — that can create problems,” he explains. Motorists getting stuck behind a slower-moving vehicle may result in congestion, road rage, or even dangerous driving as they try to pass.

But Don Liley, co-owner of LSV dealer eCartsOntario, says LSVs are safe and points to features such as mandatory seat belts and blinkers and to the fact that drivers are still licensed and insured. Also, he suggests that, as their top speed is 40 kilometres an hour, LSVs could even make roads safer. “If anything, hopefully we can slow traffic down coming through town,” says Liley, who for the past year had been asking Lambton Shores council to take part in the provincial pilot. 

Siemiatycki questions, though, whether there’s really an appetite for tiny vehicles in North America. “Smart cars have been around for a long time. You know, those two-seaters that are basically, like, an engine and a cabin — there’s not much more to it,” he says. “You don’t see those all over the place; it’s not like that model has really picked up, so is there really a market for this type of vehicle?” (Daimler pulled its Smart brand of micro cars from the North American market at the end of 2019, something Siemiatycki says “reinforces” his view.)

Liley is feeling optimistic. He’s now sold several custom LSVs, he says: “The phone’s starting to ring now, and people are starting to get excited about it.”

And, while rural communities have been the first to take up LSVs, Liley suggests their compactness could be an advantage in urban centres, where parking space comes at a premium. “They’re only about 48 inches wide,” he says, noting that the vehicles he sells range in length from six to nine feet and that some even have fully enclosed cabins with heating and air conditioning for all-season use.

So why has it taken nearly four years for municipalities to begin participating in the pilot? Liley suggests part of it is simply a matter of education — Ontarians aren’t necessarily aware of the pilot or what an LSV is (although they are already legal in British Columbia and Quebec). But he thinks proposed changes to the pilot — especially a potential reduction in insurance-coverage requirements for LSVs, which are higher than those applied to passenger cars — will spur more interest. 

In response to stakeholder requests, the Ministry of Transportation says it’s considering that change and others, including removing both the requirement for LSVs to have doors and the cap on the maximum number of occupants, which is currently set at four. “The province continues to give careful consideration to the proposed LSV changes,” a MTO spokesperson tells TVO.org in an email. There is no available timeline for when these adjustments could come into effect, the spokesperson adds.

Awaiting word on the changes, Liley is enthused that communities are beginning to test drive LSVs through the provincial pilot. “We’re very, very happy,” he says. “The future is electric.”

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