We won’t need more parking; self-driving cars are on the way


From: Pete Kleinschmidt

The recent increase in downtown development appears to have again reignited calls for even more parking. Despite the results of a professional study that clearly shows there is plenty of parking, some residents and property owners continue to call on our community leaders to invest substantial sums to further increase the number of parking stalls in our central business district.

But even if we assume the parking study is flawed or that even greater amounts of development will soon occur, there is still one other reason why it would be folly for anyone to make additional investments in more parking. It is becoming increasingly obvious that rapidly advancing technology will almost certainly eliminate the need for it.

Several years ago the author William Gibson made the observation that “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” The outline of our future transportation system is already visible to anyone willing to look and it is clear that it will be very different from our current car-dominated one. This is a system that is now over 100 years old and which was designed for a now disappearing analog world.

The exact shape of that future is still a bit cloudy, but it is obvious autonomous (self-driving) vehicles in particular will play a huge role. The core of the technology is already in place and some manufactures have even incorporated the necessary hardware into current models. All that will be necessary to make these vehicles fully autonomous is regulatory approval and a software upgrade. This isn’t something that is 20-30 years down the road. All indications are this is only two to three years away with widespread deployment likely before 2030.

How does this reduce the need for parking downtown? It does so in multiple ways. In the short term it will begin by eliminating the need for people to park close to their destination. Soon our new cars will be able to drop us off at the front door of our destination and then drive off on their own to park at any convenient location. Whether our car parks a block away or a mile away will have little impact on us personally. When we decide to leave it will drive to meet us wherever we happen to be. Indeed the bigger problem will soon be a need for greater loading space than parking space.

But of course this assumes autonomy will be just another feature in our next car like power windows or heated seats. This is unlikely because autonomy also enables us to do something else. It enables us to use vehicles much more efficiently. Currently most cars sit idle about 95 percent of the time. It is a huge financial waste. The reason this occurs is because it is currently cheaper and more convenient for each of us to own a car and let it sit parked most of the time than it is to put someone in that car to drive people around (the average cost of owning is about 60 cents per driven mile verses about $3 per mile to have someone drive you around on demand).

But autonomous driving technology dramatically changes this equation. There will no longer be any extra expense to make a vehicle available to anyone on demand. It will suddenly become dramatically cheaper to call up a car at-will from a transportation service and be chauffeured around than it will be to own one.

What this means is that few of us will ever need to own a car again. Instead of buying a car in which to drive around, we will just purchase our transportation on demand as we need it — service that will be far cheaper and more convenient than anything available today.

Please note this is already happening. Google-owned Waymo began quietly providing autonomous service without anyone in the driver seat in Chandler, Ariz., last October. It also announced at the end of January it will soon purchase thousands of vehicles and begin deploying them in other areas.

Also, these changes aren’t being driven by new laws or anyone’s politics. They are being driven by simple economics. Some really smart people have simply figured out how to build a better mousetrap. These new machines will make getting around easier and as much as 10 times cheaper. I can already think of a dozen things I would rather do with that money.

Of course no one knows how all of this will ultimately play out. But there is no doubt the writing is on the wall with billions of dollars having already been invested. It is apparent that the way we will soon be getting around won’t look anything like it does today. So while making some modest investments in things like signage and lighting to improve existing parking may still be prudent, huge capital investments in new parking lots or ramps increasingly looks pointless.

At this point I wouldn’t even recommend building the underground parking being proposed for the Hardee’s block. As the city’s parking study showed, this type of structure will likely add $400 per month or more to the cost of each apartment and it will probably take decades to pay off. At the very least I would make sure the space could be easily repurposed for other high value uses in the near future. Otherwise it will just end up being really expensive storage space.

Please note that none of this is my own idea. A significant amount of digital ink has been spilled on this subject over the past several years and it is readily available to those willing to search for it. But for those looking for a quick summary of the issues, a well-researched report recently released by RethinkX entitled “Rethinking Transportation” is a good starting point. It can be downloaded for free at https://www.rethinkx.com/transportation.


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