Transport guru Todd Litman says the biggest vehicular breakthrough of recent decades is the rolling suitcase. That’s not the conventional wisdom. Most recent attention to the wheels of the future focuses on electric cars, and they are clearly essential. Still, for some, they are also a false hope, suggesting that all we need to change is our drive trains, not our auto-centered way of life. If our future is to be sustainable, however, the role of cars—electric or otherwise—will have to diminish. The obesity epidemic, the range limits of electric batteries, the pressing need to get off the carbon-fuel rollercoaster as soon as possible, and other challenges suggest that changing vehicles’ power source is only part of the solution.

In the end, the real alternative to automobiles is not better automobiles; it is better neighborhoods. Complete, compact communities enable walking, cycling, and transit to thrive. They make electric vehicles’ limited range adequate. And they allow cars to fill their rightful place as one transportation tool among many, rather than as the organizing principle of daily life.

It’s in the context of better neighborhoods—dense, vibrant, beautiful, mixed-use, mixed-income, mixed-age communities—that rolling suitcases are a vehicular breakthrough. Well-wheeled luggage is a vast improvement on the lift-and-carry type, and it is actually just the beginning of the innovations in human-powered motion. This post on the wheels of the urban future launches a short series on the subject. My frequent collaborator Alyse Nelson, an urban planner, assembled the photos. The series expands on this pictorial ode.

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The options for human-powered transport just keep proliferating, as tinkerers and entrepreneurs apply ingenuity and ball bearings to the task of moving people and their stuff around. Future posts will cover community carts, bike trailers, cargo bikes, and an array of wackier inventions. First, though, a pedestrian starter: updating the “granny cart.”

The traditional personal shopping cart is a collapsible, wire-grid cage with two or four wheels. It’s as utilitarian an option as it was for my car-less grandmother in the 1960s. Better models easily support more than 100 pounds, and if you don’t like the styling, you can trick yours out, as Instructables.com details.

Newer designs include more-maneuverable canvas carts, which collapses like an umbrella. These trusty carts, however, are rapidly giving ground to better-engineered and more-expensive models, some smaller and others bigger, and many of them documented at Cities21.

Among the smaller models are several scaled like wheeled luggage, carrying just one or two sacks of groceries. A popular model by Roadrunner has a three-wheeled design that allows it to climb stairs. The even smaller Foldable Trolley (at right) by Reisenthel folds up—wheels and all—inside its own handbag-sized pocket. Some models impersonate a shoulder tote when folded but have a telescoping handle to operate like wheeled luggage. Thoughtful design makes it versatile.

The manufacturer Rosler, meanwhile, offers a vast array of European-made (and styled) carts in bright colors, some sturdier, some more easily folded. This one, for example, folds and hangs from a grocery’s shopping cart while you’re in the store. A UK competitor—the Typhoon Spotty Trolley—is insulated to keep your groceries cool. And folding hand trucks such as this one and this one can haul the heaviest loads.

A minimalist design from California is a rolling hanger for shopping bags. Its lack of a carrying basket of its own makes it easier to fold and, therefore, to stow while shopping. The best built carts, in my view, are baby strollers with cargo capacity (and convertible bike trailers, which I’ll discuss another time). They cost hundreds of dollars, and that’s a lot of money compared to a granny cart. On the other hand, it’s peanuts compared to a car.

The photo below shows Alyse Nelson touring Europe with her baby and her fully-loaded stroller, plus a wheeled suitcase…

Loaded stroller_Alyse Nelson

Photo by Alyse Nelson, used with permission.

and here is a look at the cargo capacity of her stroller.

Stroller capacity_Alyse Neslon

Photo by Alyse Nelson, used with permission.

Big-wheeled jogging strollers such as this one have more capacity and easier handling than the standard type pictured above. Some can even accommodate panniers, for added storage. But they also cost more and take up more space.

In time, as cities grow increasingly walkable and more people want to do their errands on foot, I expect that personal carts and baby strollers will essentially merge, with interchangeable fittings and modular components for kids and groceries. (They will also merge with bike trailers, as I’ll argue another time.) Communities that are eager to promote walking will also find ways to accommodate them: providing easy, secure parking in shops and cafes, and welcoming them on buses and trains. At present, as Alyse points out, you can’t bring a cart or stroller on a bus in the Northwest without emptying it and folding it up first. In Denmark, in contrast, strollers have a place on transit, just like wheel chairs.

Next time: community cart programs.

Huge thanks to Alyse Nelson for researching this post!