Mirror, signal, hysteria

What's red, blue and green and makes people laugh at you? By Ed Harris
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The Independent Culture
SO IS this the solution to gridlock and pollution? It is cheap, environmentally friendly and practical. Why, it is even fashionable, featuring in the pages of The Face.

This is the go-kart, and I think it might just be the urban vehicle of the new millennium. But how would it stand up to the rigorous demands of modern life, the pot-holed roads and kamikaze traffic, the jaunts to fashionable bars and cafes, the trips to the supermarket?

My model, called Donald after Disney's duck, is one of a range imported from Holland, where they are extremely popular. Donald, which costs just pounds 219, is rather a basic model, with a metal chassis and a moulded plastic seat. It's finished in bright blue and red and its chunky off-road-style tyres are, surely, ideal for London.

My neighbours peered curiously out of their windows as I, rather self- consciously, settled into the bright red seat and zoomed off into the mercifully quiet streets.

I got no further than the end of the road before I was surrounded by a pack of small children who demanded a go. "Oi, mister! Mister! Can I have a go? How fast does it go? How much is it? Where can I get one?" Some time later, I was on my way again.

I felt quite vulnerable, neither as speedy as a cyclist nor as well- protected as a motorist. As I pedalled from east London towards Islington, another drawback manifested itself. "What do you look like?" shouted a pair of trendies, lounging outside a pavement cafe. "Wanker!" chorused a gang of girls as they fell about laughing. This was to become a recurring theme of the day.

There was bemusement at the local shop as I collected my paper and pint, and rode off with them balanced in my lap (no space for shopping).

Later, came my weekly shop, at Sainsbury's in Whitechapel. The ride was far from smooth, and impatient taxi-drivers seemed to be everywhere, whizzing past, hand on horn. Even though I tried to stick to side roads and quiet streets it was clear this was not the safest way to travel. If karts are to catch on, transport policy will need a considerable shake-up, starting with a universal 15mph speed limit.

My kart looked kind of cute in a supermarket parking bay, lined up next to the Volvos of the sensible shoppers. "You planning a big shop, then?" said one wag as he loaded his boot. As I headed for home with a jar of sun-dried tomatoes and a wholemeal loaf, I wished I had ordered one of the available accessories - a trailer.

All this cycling was thirsty work, but luckily I had arranged to meet friends for drinks in a West End bar. This was when disaster struck. Pootling along Old Street towards Soho was just too terrifying, a choice between getting mown down in the bus lane or pulling out into speeding traffic. After a couple of close shaves, I turned off to find quieter roads ... and pedalled straight into the arms of the law.

"Where do you think you're going in that?" demanded a grim-faced policeman. I stammered something about research into transport policy, but it cut no ice. I was told to take my go-kart home - and not to ride it again. "I don't want to see you again - got that?" were his parting words.

Mark Searle, whose Sussex-based company, Autoculture, imports the go- karts had warned me that they weren't strictly legal for the road, although he did admit: "I have seen them everywhere - I have been run down by one in the high street. I have seen them used in the street, but I certainly would not recommend them for that use."

I reconvened lunch at a bar in Shoreditch, where drinkers enjoying the afternoon sunshine demanded a ride. Artist Greg Smart, 27, said: "It is great fun, but I would not feel safe in it - it is too low, and it is too wide and too slow. Drivers would think: `How dare you ride this thing when I am trying to drive my car?' But it would make a great park toy."

His girlfriend, Anna Dickerson, 26, an artist and keen cyclist, said: "I could see it working in Copenhagen, where you can hire a bike by putting 50p in a slot and just riding it away. It could be a great toy. The transport of the future? Oh, I don't know about that."

"It will just give motorists one more thing to aim at," observed builder Paul Taggart, 39, who took time off from his site to give the go-kart a quick test. "Me ride this to work? Are you joking?"

I meticulously planned the route to my next meeting, tea with friends in Islington, hoping to avoid traffic (and bored policemen). It took twice as long as by push-bike. "You rode here in that? Really?" was my friends' incredulous response, but within minutes they too were lining up to have a turn at taking Donald for a spin.

By the end of the day I was worn out from pedalling so many miles, and it would take a lot to tempt me back on the road in it.

Yet, in the right environment, such as whizzing through the local park or skidding around the deserted plazas and squares of the City of London at the weekend, the go-kart is definitely the thing to bring a smile to the face.

So, Mr Prescott, imagine this: roads quiet except for the whir of chain on cog, exhaust emissions cut at a stroke, accident casualties reduced, a nation of healthy commuters. In short, all your transport headaches cured. Go on, why not mention it to Tony Blair?

Donald is available through Autoculture on 01342 321596

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