Designing cities for the future of mobility
The adoption of cars during the 20th Century dramatically improved standard of living while driving massive social changes and more subtle requirements in urban planning. Over time city planners developed precise zoning requirements from the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ (ITE) Parking Generation Manual, which have been shown to be arbitrary and not data-driven. Even in low-income housing projects where many residents don’t own cars, zoning codes require vast lots to house these non-existing vehicles. These regulations were well-intentioned but often resulted in bizarre outcomes.
Form follows parking: parking regulations enforce an arbitrary abundance of spots. Many downtowns devote 50 to 60% of their real estate to vehicles: with typically 30% of the surface for roads and 20% for off-street parking.
These are just averages, and the real numbers can be even more extreme. In Seattle, parking comprises 40% of the land area, with nearly half vacant each day. This means that 20% of the surface area is un-utilized. For a visualization, pink is the current surface parking in Seattle:
Beyond surface roads, parking commands a large presence in commercial real estate as well. Parking rules dictate blueprints by requiring space, increasing the cost of housing. For example, a 2-bedroom apartment might take 900 sq-ft, the legislated parking requirement necessitating 1.5 spaces would dictate an additional 500 sq ft, often below grade.
The large costs from building the necessary parking ultimately falls on the tenant: around 15% of the price of rent can be attributed to parking. Housing policy officials even found that construction costs $25k for an above-grade garage space and $35k for a below-grade space.
Fortunately, this “parking tax” on humanity should be significantly reduced in the face of new mobility trends.
Changing Mobility’s Effect on Parking
As vehicle ownership models shift to TaaS (Transportation as a Service), the fewer cars on the road will require fewer spaces. The effects on parking lots from falling vehicle ownership numbers can already be seen. Summit N.J. decided to forego a $10 million parking structure at a crowded commuter rail station, instead partnering with Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) to provide commuters rides to the station. And as autonomous technologies advance, these effects will become even more pronounced. One shared autonomous vehicle, operating like today’s taxi or car-sharing services, could replace as many as 11 conventional vehicles. Further, a widely-cited model concluded that autonomous vehicles reduce the needed parking space by 95%. As ownership models evolve, parking requirements will as well.
Many predict that the sprawling insidious lots of today will be replaced by smaller, remote garages as users increasingly rely on shared autonomous vehicles. Thus, cities and developers have begun to consider how to build for these outcomes.
As much of parking will become obsolete, many opportunities will emerge that repurposes its current footprint. Parking lots and garages can become residential or commercial real estate, and street parking cycling lanes, parklets, or even housing. In buildings, the levels for parking can transition into storage for packages (even refrigerated areas for groceries) and bicycle parking.
Realizing the danger of not planning ahead, architects have conceptualized innovative garages that consider the effect of the driverless future. Specifically, these new parking garages to easily convert into office, amenity, or even retail space as mobility demands change.
To enable these radical transformations, these future-proofed garages are built with reinforced floors to support the load of cars, smaller columns acceptable to future residents, knock-out panels on the ceiling and floors to create future light wells, larger ceiling heights allowing room for future duct and electrical work, and removable ramps or elevators with flat floors to replace the constant slope of garages.
Municipalities and larger corporate developers may look long-term in their planning, but the private sector is still focused on the near term. Because many parking areas would need to be completely retooled to be ‘future-proofed’, many developers are instead interested in maximizing profits for their current space.
Whereas developers solve for highest and best use above grade through developing by the square foot, below grade they historically have only one product: an expensive, fixed-cost parking space that rarely pencils out to a positive return.
As cities get reengineered and regulations become more aligned with future realities, new business models will emerge that unlock the latent value in their below grade real estate. This transformation has happened in other industries where technology has maximized utilization.
For example, parking spaces could be aggregated and rented more flexibly on-demand in condos. As almost all parking management systems are catered just to commercial lots, market opportunities also exist for maximizing the utilization of parking spots in developments. Tenants want parking, yet don’t fully utilize their spot. Specifically, if buildings were to give tenants the right to a spot, rather than ownership of a spot, these spaces could be rented on-demand, generating a new revenue stream for developers.
Further, parking space could be sold by the square foot instead of by the spot. Segmenting parking lots into dynamically-sized spaces would allow buildings to sell to new businesses. This would satisfy the small requirements of door to door delivery robots as well as the larger requirements of e-tailers who are looking for increasing downtown presence. What was once the ability to inflexibly sell a 9’x18’ parking space, now becomes the dynamic sale of a single square foot.
Collectively, new business models will emerge that maximize utilization by dynamically allocating parking time and parking space. Combining the estimated 800M parking spots in the US together, this dynamic has the potential to reengineer the landmass equivalent of Rhode Island and Delaware.