Which is why a team at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tried inventing a car for city use. They call it Hiriko, and built a prototype with seven small firms from the Basque region of northern Spain. They've now shown it off with help from European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.
If you need an SUV to haul cargo or kids, this is not the car for you. But if you live in a crowded city, or have had to navigate the narrow streets of many European cities, you may see its appeal.
Hiriko means "urban car." It is derived from two Basque words -- "Hiri" (urban in Basque) and "Ko" (coche or car). The first two-seater production models should be on the streets in Spain next year.
"This is an electric vehicle that gets the equivalent of 200 mpg," said Kent Larson of MIT, who heads the Changing Places project at MIT. "Combined with shared-use, it greatly reduces congestion, pollution, and energy consumption."
In older European cities, where parking is at a premium, the Hiriko has an advantage over conventional cars: It folds up.
It is then about five feet long, so one can park it head-first.
When folded, it is shorter than most cars are wide. Three Hirikos can use a parking space ordinarily needed for one standard sedan.
How can a car fold up? The Hiriko, with an electric motor attached to each wheel, does not need a drive train as a traditional car does.
And the wheels are mounted at the corners of the chassis, so the car can turn in place if necessary, or even move sideways.
There are no side doors. The entire front of the Hiriko opens for easy access, and the controls swing out of the way.
A car as small as the Hiriko may seem inherently unsafe, but its designers say they thought about that.
"This is designed for central cities, where the average speed is often below 20 mph," Larson said. "It is not designed for highway use."
Urban planners say the reality for many urban drivers is that they sit in traffic, using cars because they want the privacy and flexibility mass transit will not give them -- but frustrated that they're not going anywhere.
Larson said that while the Hiriko may be bought by people who want one, it may be better for the cars to be shared. (ZipCar, which offers shared cars in major U.S. cities, has been successful, and there are similar programs in Europe.)
The sticker price would be about 12,500 euros, or $16,000.
But the organizers say most people would rent a car when they need it -- much less expensive for users in the long run. One would pick up a car parked close to one's location instead of from a central rental office.
After years of planning (an advanced-projects team at General Motors was involved until the financial crisis in 2008), the Hiriko may actually come to several cities. The organizers say they've had inquiries from Berlin, Barcelona, San Francisco and Hong Kong. Talks are under way with Paris, London, Boston, Dubai and Brussels.
The car is designed to go about 100 miles on a charge, and its battery packs would be interchangeable.
Does it have a place for American suburbanites, who need space to carry things and engine power for highways? Probably not. Will it work in older cities? A pilot program is scheduled in the Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz next year.