How self-driving cars will make parking structures obsolete

Self-driving cars and parking requirements

Self-driving cars will make on-site parking spaces obsolete causing major disruption to commercial and multi-family residential real estate. As services such as Uber and Lyft embrace self-driving cars, auto ownership will decline, and passengers will demand more curb space for drop-off and pick-up.

Paradigm shift in auto ownership

Ever wondered why auto ownership became so critical in our lives?  Was it because of the advances in manufacturing technologies?  Was it because of the low price of auto ownership?  Whatever the case may be, auto ownership revealed the “can do” spirit of the American enterprise.  At the dawn of the industrial revolution, people were embracing new technologies such as cars, refrigerators and air-conditioners to make their lives more comfortable.  It was a major paradigm shift that also ushered in urban sprawl, suburban expansion and interstate highways that filled our landscape. 

But that was then.  Today, a paradigm shift is underway with the arrival of self-driving cars and sharing economy.  It will no longer be necessary to own an automobile that remains parked 95% of the time.  As people realize that our appetite for auto ownership has left massive environmental footprint with depletion of resources and loss of urban life, they will begin to embrace the sharing economy and self-driving cars. 

Reconfiguring street level uses

Urban life was characterized by pedestrian traffic and retail store fronts before the arrival of an automobile.  It was an experience that still resonates in older sections of many cities.  However, wasteful parking lots and street level parking floors gave rise to empty streets devoid of people and liveliness. 

Local zoning regulations dictate parking requirements in most cities. As a direct consequence of such requirements, most urban structures have on-site parking spaces either in the form a parking lot or as lower floors of a multi-story structure.  With self-driving cars and anticipated reduction in auto-ownership, parking spaces in densely populated urban areas will no longer be necessary.  That would free up commercial and multi-family real estate currently used for parking spaces. 

Managing cities with self-driving cars

But what will we do with the newly available space?  Perhaps self-driving cars and sharing economy will allow our cities to return to their urban roots by converting newly available space for people intensive uses.  Reconfiguring street level uses for retail and entertainment will hopefully revitalize out cities and create a sustainable future for all. 

Another impact of self-driving cars and sharing economy will be a growing need for curb space for loading and unloading of passengers and goods.  Such cars will compete with on-street parking spaces and slow-moving bicycle traffic.  It is possible that on-street parking may face the same fate as on-site parking spaces and may become unnecessary.  Local traffic authorities that rely on revenue generated from parking meters will have to look elsewhere for support and will need to be proactive in managing the anticipated changes.

Jane Jacobs, the author of Death and Life of Great American Cities divided the world into foot people and car people.  Foot people, she claimed, decided the quality of life and urban experience of a city.  Perhaps it is time for the foot people to reclaim the streets and sidewalks left behind by empty parking spaces.  That would also revitalize our urban experience. 

Title image: Empty parking lots.  By Алексей Покровский – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16880803.

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