The Imminent Parking Re-Think

I just read a long, but worthwhile article on “An End to Parking?” on Mother Jones.

An giant empty parking lot in Sapporo, Japan

If you haven’t heard, the future is coming soon to a road near you. And the future is self-driving cars. There’s been a lot of talk about self-driving cars over the years. I’ve even sat in one back in 2006 at a Toyota Showcase building in Odaiba area of Tokyo.


I sat in this self-driving car pictured above. The car wound its way along a predetermined track within the complex. When the car rounded corners, the steering wheel would spin on its own with a grinding sound every few degrees of rotation.

So what do self-driving cars have to do with parking? Apparently, everything. The Mother Jones article starts with a discussion at how much parking there is in the USA.

A 2011 study at the University of California-Berkeley found that the United States has somewhere close to a billion parking spots. Since there are only 253 million passenger cars and light trucks in the country, that means we have roughly four times more parking spaces than vehicles. If you totaled up all the area devoted to parking, it’d be roughly 6,500 square miles, bigger than Connecticut.

There’s enough parking spaces in America that it could form an entire state. Freaky stat.

Here’s why self-driving cars could potentially transform how we think about parking.

But at the level of urban design and the environment, self-driving cars could produce huge benefits. After all, if cars can drive themselves, fleets of them could scurry around picking people up and dropping them off, working with sleek, robotic efficiency. With perfect computerized knowledge of where potential riders were, they could pick up several people heading the same way, optimizing ride-sharing on the fly. One study suggests a single self-driving car could replace up to 12 regular vehicles. Indeed, many urbanists predict that fleets of robocars could become so reliable that many, many people would choose not to own automobiles, causing the amount of parking needed to drop through the floor.

We could potentially rid ourselves of acres and acres of parking in every city across the globe. The robocars would be like taxis that pick up and drop off customers, then move onto the next closest ride. However, it would be way more efficient than what we can do today.

Also, self-driving cars are expected to do what humans cannot – maintain an optimum speed and distance with the traffic around it. It would almost be like watching a flock of birds fly together in symphonic synchrony. At least this would be the optimisitic outlook for self-driving cars.

The current abundance of parking has certainly shaped our decisions on a personal and on a civic level. If there was no parking available in my building or on the street in front of my apartment, would I have a car? The answer is likely no since I have easy access to rapid transit near my home. If I didn’t have rapid transit nearby, I would probably still need a car and just pay for parking.

However, as the article points out, parking is not truly free.

When developers are forced to build parking, the cost is folded into the purchase price, be it a home, an office, or a restaurant. And when people don’t pay to park at the curb (only a tiny fraction of curbside spots in the United States are metered), it’s the city that pays to build and maintain that spot. These costs are passed down to consumers and taxpayers, but since they’re never itemized, they’re easy to ignore.

So the self-driving car may be able to save us from the hidden high costs of parking, but the technology is likely to cost us in different ways we haven’t figured out yet. What is the necessary infrastructure needed to support self-driving cars on a massive multi-user level? Will we all own self-driving cars like we own our cars today or will we all participate in a giant car-share/taxi system? What are the fees associated with that kind of system?

The current benchmark of annual transportation costs is roughly $10,000 (my rough estimate) for most car commuters. If the system were to cost the end-user a lot less than the current benchmark, I think the investment in infrastructure will be worthwhile.

However, the benefit of getting rid of parking in cities would also have an additional benefit.

If we wean ourselves off the need to store cars, spots and lots could be converted into parks, schools, hospitals, housing. Better yet, it’s property that is precisely where you’d want new development: downtown, inherently walkable.

All that excess parking could potentially become re-purposed with something much better than a giant flat asphalt lot that sits mostly empty on evenings and weeknights.

The Blue Line T-Train in Boston

So what happens to public transit in the face of a fleet of self-driving cars criss-crossing the city? I think there will still be a place for public transit because it is still a much more cost-effective and cost-efficient way of transporting a large number of people across the city. I don’t think we should sacrifice public transit in favour of the self-driving car. We still need to invest in transit projects that help mobility in our cities. It will also still be one of the cheapest ways to move across a city.

Self-driving cars are potentially a huge paradigm shift in how we live. The full public rollout of such technology is still a decade off, but companies like Google are investing heavily in bringing self-driving cars to a roadway near you.

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