Thoughts on Parking Spaces

Autonomous cars are coming. It’s not clear when they’re coming, 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, but they will be here soon. There is a steady stream of articles that detail a maturing technology. As one of the latest examples, in Paris, a self-driving shuttle is being deployed to run over a fixed route. Clearly, this is far from a “go-anywhere” autonomous vehicle. Nonetheless, the fact that the technology is under massive development from multiple companies suggest that it is something that is simply not that far off.

It is thus time to consider the consequences.

The first order effects are interesting in their own rights. What companies stand to gain or lose by either production of autonomous cars or by the direct consequences of non-sales onto their fleet. The rental-car industry is one striking example where autonomous vehicles have a chance to impose significant changes on the entire business. Trucking is another.

However, the effects from widely deployed autonomous cars will not be confided to cars themselves. Benedict Evans wrote a stellar post on the second-order effects of wide-scale deployment where in particular he looked at the effects on living space and the relative trade-off between the city center, the suburbs and rural areas with the introduction of autonomous vehicles. He posited that the suburbs will decline while cities (maximized for face-to-face interaction) and rural areas (maximized for attractiveness of setting) will flourish. He also touched on the issue of parking spaces, whose need will likely completely disappear with the introduction of vehicles that either can park themselves (in a private ownership scenario) or seamless go serve another customer (in an on-demand scenario).

If you imagine that one of the effects of autonomous cars will be to reduce, or eliminate, the demand for parking spaces there are a number of interesting consequences. There will be a tremendous amount of space that will be reclaimed in cities, since it is no longer needed for parking. Some of this space is going to be easy to reclaim, parking garages can be torn down and new development rebuilt, but some will be much more difficult to reclaim. The removal of on-street parking will create micro-spaces which are too small to build an entire house on. Local mini-parks with trees and grass will improve the quality of life, but there will be challenges in finding other efficient uses for this vestigial space. If not repurposed, useless parking spaces will have the effect of slowing down movement for pedestrians while offering little advantages for cars. Now, perhaps parking spaces will be able to be converted into something more useful, and something directly related to mobility — like dedicated bike lanes. Something like this could have the potential to tilt the advantage back to cites with new bike advantages.

Another effect will be that buildings designed around parking lots will become ghostly. Modern shopping malls and strip malls exist solely for the convenience of the parking around them. Without the need for parking, they will be incredibly inconvenient as compared to tightly clustered pedestrian shopping districts. They’ll also be surrounded with asphalt that is going to be expensive to remove. This is a lot of costly inventory to remediate.

Another consequence is that cities designed for cars will suffer. Old cities that are designed for pedestrians, or possibly horses, suffer under the requirements of parking spaces, which are jammed in and make navigating around them slow and cumbersome. Without parking spaces, old urban centers built up over centuries will become vastly more appealing, as they appeal directly to a perambulatory visitor. New cities designed with ample street side parking will seem too spread out, and will be less efficient for business. Oddly enough, the consequence of the new technology will be to make the old newly vigorous. As one example consequences, from this, one might suspect that Europe, home to beautifully curated cities designed around walking, will begin to yield efficiencies and benefits over newer American cities that are more closely designed around cars.

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