When Jo Ann Monnens’ grandchildren get fussy, she knows what will soothe them: a spin down her Shakopee street in the family’s blue golf cart.
“It definitely is fun,” Monnens said. “I think anybody who had one would enjoy it.”
In fancy metro neighborhoods and far-flung exurbs, golf carts are booming in popularity as a convenient, inexpensive and energy-efficient way to get around. More suburbs are letting drivers use them on city streets — even if they live nowhere near a golf course.
Lonsdale and Anoka last year began letting drivers with permits take golf carts on city streets, while Osseo loosened restrictions on their use and Lake Elmo started allowing them in certain areas.
Golf carts have been legal with a permit in Prior Lake since 2009, subject to state restrictions. Fifty-one Prior Lake residents got permits last year, about twice as many as in 2012.
As more golf carts share the road with cars, some fear the mix of vehicles is an accident waiting to happen.
“They probably wouldn’t have a fighting chance with a car,” said Jason Schauer, service manager at MOR Golf and Utility, a golf cart retailer in Lakeville.
But others say the vehicles are safe — most top out at 20 mph — and they welcome the chance to go to the store or visit a friend faster than their feet can take them.
“With an SMV [slow-moving vehicle] sign, they can easily drive on side streets,” said Paula Swanson, who owns a golf cart in Prior Lake, in a Facebook post. “The electric ones are clean and quiet ... and are nice for short drives.”
Elko New Market has never officially allowed golf carts on its streets, but residents of the Scott County semirural exurb have largely ignored that fact. The police chief so far this summer has received 31 complaints about golf carts and all-terrain vehicles related to drivers who are too young, unsafe or both. City officials are discussing whether to allow carts with certain restrictions.
At a recent City Council meeting, many residents said they feared losing their golf cart privileges, which they said would damage the community’s small-town feel. Some hoped teenagers would still be able to drive them.
“I would just be heartbroken if my kids couldn’t go trick-or-treating on the golf cart,” said Elko New Market resident Molly Wichner, who loves tooling around in a cart with her dogs.
A national trend
The number of golf cart permits doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual number of owners because not everyone gets a permit, sources said. But the local embrace of golf carts mirrors a larger national trend over the last decade.
In the South and Southwest, the buggies have become a mainstay. They’re seen frequently in retirement communities, where they’ve become a reliable and affordable way for senior citizens without cars to get around. The Villages, a community for seniors in Florida, was laid out with golf carts in mind; their square silhouette shows up on street signs.
In Minnesota, golf cart dealers point to campgrounds and college campuses as hot spots for their products, along with farms and apartment complexes. In the metro area, they’re found mostly in the exurbs and in upscale developments for motoring to the community pool or, yes, the putting green.
“Everybody wants to tool around the neighborhood,” said Mark Kaufman, owner of RM Golf Carts in Ramsey.
Kaufman said the vehicles are a “cheap way of having a toy without breaking the bank.” Prices range from $2,000 for used carts to $8,500 for new high-end models, he said, though other dealers quote prices north of $10,000. Kaufman said he sells mostly electric carts rather than gas-powered ones.
Rich Kaehler, owner of Golf Carts of Minnesota in St. Paul, said he saw a 20% to 30% increase in sales in 2018. He offers a safety package costing $1,000 to $1,500 that includes turn signals, headlights and taillights, a horn, rearview mirror and shatterproof windshield. It’s a popular upgrade, he said. Some buyers “trick out” their carts with oversized custom wheels and colorful paint jobs, such as flames festooning the sides.
The carts are perfect for use in tiny Osseo, which encompasses just 2 square miles, said Police Chief Shane Mikkelson. The city runs a trolley service using a golf cart to take residents around town.
All-terrain vehicles — also known as four-wheelers — and side-by-sides are also having a moment. A side-by-side looks a lot like a golf cart but goes faster and is designed for more rugged riding. Many cities include these sturdier buggies in their ordinances, too.
Twin Cities suburbs have been regulating golf carts on city streets since at least 2006, when Shakopee and White Bear Lake passed ordinances allowing them.
State law allows cities to decide whether to permit them and other smaller vehicles on their streets, according to the League of Minnesota Cities. They’re not sanctioned unless a city adopts an ordinance allowing them; those that do allow them must issue permits to residents. Even with a city permit, golf cart drivers can’t go on county and state roads.
Some cities say they enacted rules when they saw the carts becoming commonplace. Others decided the best way to respond to complaints was to put restrictions in place.
Oak Grove approved an ordinance in 2013 that created a renewable golf cart permit for the entire city every three years. Mark Korin, a former mayor, said he thinks carts belong on county roads, too.
The state says cities that allow golf carts must require a slow-moving vehicle emblem, rearview mirrors and proof of insurance, among other things. Some cities also add a curfew, a minimum age requirement (often 16), a maximum speed limit or noise restrictions.
Even with such stipulations, concerns remain about whether the 1,000-pound carts are appropriate for driving on roads traveled by 3,000-pound cars — especially with tweens and teens in the driver’s seat.
“You see … kids piled on it like it’s a clown car,” said Rob Schnichels at a recent of Elko New Market City Council meeting. “It’s dangerous.”
Golf cart owners in Lonsdale used to be strictly elderly, said Police Chief Jason Schmitz. But the city has recently gotten complaints about 11- to 14-year old kids behind the wheel. Lonsdale, just southwest of Elko New Market in Rice County, enacted an ordinance last year requiring golf cart drivers to be age 16 with a driver’s license, or 15 with a learner’s permit and accompanied by an adult.
Apple Valley Police Chief Jon Rechtzigel said that he opposes golf carts on the city’s streets because of the volume and speed of local traffic. Carts aren’t designed to withstand a collision with a car, he said, recalling a visit to Detroit Lakes where he almost hit a golf cart with several people onboard.
Stephanie Carroll, CFO of Versatile Vehicles in Prior Lake, on the other hand, said she thinks golf carts are well-suited for high-traffic areas. They’re safer than bicycles, she said, “because if someone were to hit it, [the cart] could withstand some sort of impact.”
Kaufman, the golf cart dealer in Ramsey, said he sees only good things for the industry. “Every year, it’s going to become more and more popular,” he said. “Why wouldn’t a town want you to … jump on a golf cart and go?”
Erin Adler • 612-673-1781