This summer and fall, the Vanguard had a long debate over one of the proposed apartment complexes that had fewer parking spots than beds. However, the more we examined the issue, looking at mode shares to and from campus, we realized that fewer and fewer students drive to campus – particularly when they are already in town and close by the campus.
Indeed, we have seen an increase in students who do not appear to have access to any car. Instead they walk, bike or take the bus to school and utilize car sharing like Zipcars when they do need a vehicle to make a run to the store.
It suddenly occurred to me as we were discussing downtown parking that we are planning our downtown on the planning of yesterday rather than the planning of tomorrow.
One of our readers sent me a copy of a Mother Jones article from the beginning of 2016.
The numbers are astonishing. The article notes that Disney’s Epcot center in Orlando is home to one of the biggest parking lots in America – 12,000 cars, 7 million square feet, the size of 122 football fields. “If you look at the lot on Google Maps, you realize that it’s nearly the size of Epcot center itself. Disney built one Epcot to hold the visitors. Then it built another to hold the cars,” the article notes.
Disney isn’t alone. “Parking is, after all, what cars do most of the time: The average automobile spends 95 percent of its time sitting in place. People buy cars because they need to move around, but the amount of time they actually do move around is tiny. So the cars are parked, and in multiple spaces: A car owner needs a spot near home, but also spots near other places he or she might go—the office, a shopping mall, Epcot.”
A 2011 student by UC Berkeley found that the US has about a billion parking spots to house only 243 million cars. “If you totaled up all the area devoted to parking, it’d be roughly 6,500 square miles, bigger than Connecticut,” they quip.
Not only has the interstate highway system encouraged sprawl, but parking needs have equally profound effects, including the need for space, expense, and factors like this: “A study by the Sightline Institute found that at least 15 percent of the price of rent in Seattle stemmed from developers’ cost of building parking.”
But the world is changing. There is an “end in sight.” They write, “We are, they say, on the cusp of a new era, when cities can begin dramatically reducing the amount of parking spaces they offer. This shift is being driven by a one-two punch of social and technological change.”
On the social side, “people are increasingly opting to live in urban centers, where they don’t need—or want—to own a car. They’re ride-sharing or using public transit instead.”
And technologically, “we’re seeing the rapid emergence of self-driving cars.”
Color me as one of the skeptics on the latter. But it seems like Uber and Lyft, if they can maintain their business models, along with Zipcars, could reduce the need for car ownership. The key here is that people have an economical and reliable way to have the conveniences of cars without the hassle and expense of owning those cars.
On that front, if we can get past our distrust of technology, self-driving cars on the level of “urban design and the environment” could have huge benefits.
Writes Mother Jones, “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.”
“Parking has been this sacred cow that we couldn’t touch—and now we can touch it,” says Gabe Klein, who has headed the transportation departments in Chicago and Washington, DC.
“All that parking could go away, and then what happens?” he asks. “You unlock a tremendous amount of value.”
Do you buy it?
Way back in the 1960s, UCLA’s Donald Shoup became alarmed by the massive growth of parking. “Parking is wildly mismanaged—it’s probably our most inefficient use of resources in many ways,” Professor Shoup told Mother Jones.
“The deep irony is that cities rarely require developers to construct enough affordable housing, but they pass strict laws making sure vehicles can be adequately housed,” the article notes.
“We don’t force [developers] to build the right number of bedrooms for people! We just force them to build the right number of bedrooms for cars,” says Jeffrey Tumlin, the principal and director of strategy for Nelson Nygaard, a parking consultancy.
The belief is that the dominance of the car “is on the wane in many places.”
Some of this is the cost of fuel, but Jeff Kenworthy, a professor of sustainability at Curtin University in Australia believes it is more than that. He says it is related to a concept known as the “Marchetti Wall.” This concept is that “the majority of people disliked commuting more than one hour to work.”
Faced with a longer commute, “you hit the Wall and rearrange your life, finding a new, more local job or moving closer to the office.”
This has led in the last 20 years to denser cities and fewer people living in the suburbs.
But, Mother Jones warns, “this trend isn’t necessarily set in stone. While the number of vehicle miles traveled per capita in the United States began declining in 2005, it began rising again in 2014.”
They attribute that dip to the Great Recession and $4-per-gallon gas. Constantine Samaras, a civil and environmental engineer at Carnegie Mellon University, believes that the rise is because the price of gas in the United States has since gone down, and “when the price is cheap, people are going to drive more.”
Despite this, many experts believe the urbanizing trend will accelerate due to the millennials who are “increasingly turning against the car.”
There is a huge trend towards on-demand services like Uber and Lyft. Uber in 2015 reported making a million trips per day and, by the summer of 2015, it was growing about 300 percent per year. Moreover, 70 percent of Uber customers are under 34 and 56 percent of them live in cities.
The article notes, “What’s more, Uber is seeing especially rapid growth in its ride-sharing offering, Uber Pool, which matches travelers heading to roughly the same destination. In exchange for sharing a ride, the fare is at least 25 percent cheaper than a regular Uber fare. The company introduced the service in San Francisco a year ago, and already nearly 50 percent of all Uber rides in the city are pooled.”
These facts stun Uber itself.
“The adoption of ride-sharing is larger than anybody anticipated. The market is massive,” says David Plouffe, the former Obama campaign manager who is now Uber’s chief adviser and a board member, during an interview at the company’s shiny headquarters in downtown San Francisco. “I don’t think anyone who was around in the beginning suggested that the market would be this big. I mean, we have a good service, but clearly this is married up with how people want to live.”
The article goes on to discuss the self-driving car. It notes the Google self-driving car: “These cars have already driven a total of 1.2 million miles and have only been in a tiny number of accidents. The computer guidance system, said the engineer sitting in the driver’s seat—his hands folded in his lap—is a very cautious driver.”
“Ten years ago, self-driving car prototypes could barely drive 10 miles across a relatively uncluttered desert. Now they’re expertly weaving through traffic in Silicon Valley, Austin, and Pittsburgh.”
“The rate of progress,” marveled the engineer, “is mind-blowing.”
I am guessing much of the Vanguard readership views the self-driving car with the same trepidation as I do. But this may well be another wave of the future that ends up saving us from ourselves.
After all, while there are multiple possible models for self-driving cars including private ownership, in a public model – they’d never need to park. “The robocars could drive all day long, stopping only to refuel or for maintenance; at night, when there was less demand, they could drive out to a remote parking spot on the outskirts of town.”
Texas Professor Kara Kockelman believes, says Mother Jones, “that if you shifted the entire city to autonomous cars, it would need a staggering 90 percent less parking than it needs today. It’d be speedy travel: In Kockelman’s model, when people called for a car, one typically came along in about 20 seconds. It’d be profitable: When she spec’d out the cost of running an Uber-like fleet of robot cars, she calculated it would cost $70,000 to buy and deploy each vehicle, but that each would earn a 19 percent profit on investment every year. And rides would only be about $1 per mile, even if just a single passenger rode at a time—half as cheap as today’s typical Austin cab far.”
The problem with public transportation was always about time and convenience and cost – at these times and rates, maybe we would be able to overcome that.
The bottom line for today is that vision seems a bit off in the future though. Still with models like Zipcars, Lyft and Uber, perhaps we should re-think parking in our own town and focus on making it more accessible to use alternative mode shares.
—David M. Greenwald reporting