Autonomy And The End of Parking Spaces

Autonomous vehicles will change our future.  It seems that in every article or interview published on the topic, predictions arise over how our lives will be changed, especially in dense urban areas.  For one, roads will be less congested as cars move more efficiently towards their intended destination.  Following that, drivers won’t spend time going in circles to find a parking space, so vehicles that have dropped off a passenger will clear out quicker.  Even better, that car can go pick up the next passenger or deliver goods so it won’t have to park at all.  Decreased congestion and the vanishing need for parking are among the two most predicted improvements of our automated futures.

I agree with both of those – to a point – but I feel as though perception of these outcomes takes on a “near zero” assumption instead of a “different from our current state” assumption.  Let me explain what I mean.  I have heard people state the assumption that there will be no need for parking spaces, because the vehicle will move on to another passenger or delivery.  The vast majority of people have a workday that starts around the same time as everyone else’s.  There are peak demand times for vehicle use, usually 7-9:30 am and again at 3:30-6:30 pm.  In between, most of those vehicles are not needed.  The options at that point are: 1) to drive aimlessly and thus re-create the effects of commuters searching for parking or 2) actually park and thus not eliminate the need for urban parking spaces.

Autonomous vehicles can’t defy the laws of physics; they will always occupy physical space and need to re-fuel.  Parking lots won’t stop existing but may transition into service lots.  Spaces will be tighter and more of them will have EV charging stations.  Attendants will clean the vehicles and dock/un-dock them from charging stations.  Cars that are cleaned and re-charged may then move to even tighter parking spaces.  In the end though, those cars will have to be serviced and park somewhere and the amount of parking space needed will be determined by the interplay between peak demand, baseline demand during non-peak hours, and location.

Parking use may drastically change at places like malls or big box stores. Those lots have to be able to accommodate demand on peak shopping days like the day after Thanksgiving.  I believe that human-driven cars will never completely go away, but AVs will allow for building those lots for baseline demand rather than peak demand.  A day like Black Friday, with masses of shoppers arriving before opening and then filing out en mass shortly thereafter, the number of people and goods queueing for arrival and departure at the same time could ironically create the need for those lots to be declared non-parking to make space for multiple arrival and departure queues.

Street-side parking may disappear entirely and be re-purposed for a variety of uses.  Loading zones will be important to keep destination points from creating congestion.  Bike lanes and pedestrian uses can also be expanded.  Ultimately though, popular destination points and peak arrival times will still combine to create some sort of queue, resulting in a decreased flow of traffic.  Designated loading zones and the reduction in parking lot size at shopping destinations is likely to change the type of congestion that takes place at these sites from what we currently have.   The typical bad commute has us in stop-and-go traffic on or near the freeway.  In the future, the congestion could be located closer to pick up and drop off points.  In good weather commuters may be willing to be dropped off farther from a destination but bad weather, shopping bags, or both will still have people waiting in line to get in and out of vehicles.  Congestion won’t go away, what will change is where it takes place.

I’ve just discussed three ways in which parking may change and how two of those cases are likely to effect congestion.  Our population is going to increase rapidly over the next 34 years.  The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that our population will reach 400 million people in 2051, a 25% increase from what it is today.  The accompanying strain on transportation capacity will grow by more than that.  Familiarity with technology and rideshare will mean that senior citizens will stay on roads in far greater numbers than previous generations.  Cars that can drive themselves will open up mobility options to individuals who can’t.  The visually impaired and others with certain disabilities will be able to hail rides much like the rest of us do.

The addition of that many more people to our roads will create more congestion.  Without the advent of automated (or partially automated) vehicles future congestion will be a magnified version of today’s congestion.  With automation, the congestion we get will be morph into something different.  Parking will look different and be less dispersed, but it will never go away.

As we move towards an uncertain future it is important to remember that there are few isolated variables.  Advances in automotive technology may eliminate current forms of outcomes without eliminating the outcomes themselves.  In planning for this, it is important to consider all the assumptions that must hold true for our predictions to come to fruition.  The conversation revolving around AVs and our future is too shallow for how complex of a situation this is.  So far, the conversation has been largely dominated by internet conjecture.  Experts, when asked, delve into complex explanations because the answers are complex.  But the ease of writing – and reading – a short list of “Here Is How The Future Will Change” with one paragraph per scenario is now happening so often that the resultant echo chamber is dominated by one-dimensional discussion.

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