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Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Dystopia of Parking Automated Cars

The future of parking is very much an open question, given the uncertain, diverging possibilities of automated vehicles. Ultimately, the future will be whichever dystopia we create through our collective decisions. Last night, I had a glimpse into one of the cities we may create.

There were neighborhoods with beautiful streets. The sidewalks were wide, well landscaped with rain gardens, and uninterrupted by driveways. The houses and apartment buildings were free of blank garage doors and the local retail had outdoor seating areas instead of parking lots. Occasionally, people walked out to cars that quickly and quietly whisked them away, or they were dropped off near their houses before the cars pulled away and disappeared.

But out of sight were the poor neighborhoods, places where the affluent and middle-class residents rarely had reason to venture. As always, the houses were not as well maintained. The streetscapes were nothing like the more affluent areas. Less City funding had been invested in either paving materials or landscaping when widening the sidewalks, and they did not enjoy the additional street furniture and maintenance available with the resources of private associations. But what really stood out were the driveways up and down the streets. They interrupted the street trees and the scrubby landscaping, and especially in the early morning and later evening, a steady stream of empty vehicles cut across the sidewalks and filled the streets. Needless to say, there were few retail areas with people enjoying themselves outside. The parking facilities for automated vehicles dominated the streets.

This dreadful image followed yesterday's discussion about automated vehicles in the Transportation Committee of the New York City Council. As part of the discussion, the New York City Department of Transportation suggested automated vehicles could reduce demand for parking and open opportunities to convert space to other uses. An optimistic takeaway was picked up in a tweet by the committee chair:
The assumptions, of course, are sound. Buying a car is expensive. Cars spend most of their time parked. Parking takes up a lot of space. The incentives all favor a system where people can pay for a car to pick them up and drop them off, and then go away. Services that build on existing options like Zipcar and Uber could continue to evolve as new technology is implemented in cities. Spreading expenses over the many people who use the same vehicle each day drives down the cost. It does not come with the stressful financial transactions of investing in something that depreciates and then trying to recover the most value when selling the used vehicle. A model of transportation as a service also provides more flexibility, as users can choose the vehicle that best meets their needs for each specific trip, rather than trying to use the same vehicle for all trip purposes.

In New York City, many drivers rely on transit or walking for their routine, daily commute, but still keep a car for other, less frequent trips. An on-demand, shared fleet model would free them from the challenges of finding a parking space and moving their cars for alternate side parking.

As NYC DOT noted, the turnover in usage would require a much smaller fleet than individual ownership. That reduction in the number of vehicles would reduce parking, and this gets people excited. There are so many things that could be done with the space currently dedicated to parking.

On-street parking could be converted to other public uses, with a wonderful range of possibilities: wider sidewalks; landscaping, including rain gardens that improve water quality; and seating areas, to name a few.

Surface parking lots could be developed. This provides an opportunity to fill in gaps in the streetscape and reduce the interruptions to the sidewalk. Similarly, individual off-street parking spaces could be reclaimed for other purposes, likewise eliminating curb cuts and vehicles crossing sidewalks. A nicer street to walk on, instead of barren parking lots, gaping garage entrances, or blank garage doors would obviously improve many aspects of neighborhood life.

This seductive potential comes with great risk of exacerbating inequality. Affluent and middle-class neighborhoods could quickly experience dramatic improvements in their streets. More attractive streets could be served by cars that periodically whisk in to take residents where they want to go and disappear again. Those cars would "disappear" into poor neighborhoods, where low property cost would concentrate massive parking facilities. Instead of gaining better streetscapes as a result of lower parking demand, the new flexibility in parking locations would makes low-cost neighborhoods attractive as places to warehouse the automated fleets.

NYC DOT is giving these issues careful thought as they develop, Replogle rightly noted the potential of additional circulation on streets as the result of autonomous vehicle circulation:
Much of that circulation could impact core neighborhoods as the vehicles wait short periods between trips, although that is effectively a replacement to the current situation with for-hire vehicles. It is in the poor neighborhoods where these vehicles would be garaged that new impacts are likely to be most acute.

So, naturally, my first reaction was to dash off a tweet with this concern:
That's fine to say, but working out some means to actually avoid this type of outcome is a bit trickier matter. To start addressing these possibilities, we first need to understand some of the basic facts better. What factors will shape the future supply of parking? What will drive the demand?

It makes sense to start with supply, because the conditions on the ground today will shape how the future unfolds. In the densest parts of the city, most of the existing parking is included in structures, integrated into the buildings they serve. The feasibility and cost of converting those garages to other uses will determine just how much pressure there will be actually pushing parking outward. Of course, we can never underestimate developers' ability to have rules rewritten to facilitate their profits.

Other considerations include the size of existing facilities and the efficiency of their layouts for automated vehicles. It is likely enough some of the small, old garages with valets cramming cars into stackers will not be suitable for automated vehicles and poorly adapted for other uses either. Don't be surprised to see a small handful of curious vacant garages hanging around long after automated vehicles seem like a longstanding norm.

When it comes to demand, things get even more complicated. We will have to see how new technology affects the operations of different modes, and how their varying rates of adoption change cultural preferences. Automated vehicles and other technologies may revolutionize not only private cars, but also the much maligned bus. Connected vehicle technology can greatly optimize traffic flow, and has the potential to mitigate congestion, but is unlikely to eliminate it. At the same time, connected vehicles can create the ability to supercharge priority treatment for transit. In the future, transit may become more demand responsive in ways that further optimize its performance. Meanwhile, the job losses of transit workers translate into tremendous cost savings that can contribute to the attractiveness of transit in core urban areas.

Location is always a factor in demand. For Manhattan, that is likely to remain largely an issue of capacity constraints on the river crossings. Given the density of demand for travel on the island and the penalties a vehicle incurs getting on and off through bridge and tunnel bottlenecks, there is likely to be a preference for some parking in Manhattan. That operating preference, however, is subordinate to cost considerations. If parking is too expensive in the core, cars will deadhead from much more remote locations, even if it is inefficient.

After sifting through the details, testing elasticities and checking for the sensitivities of variables, and quantifying forecast ranges for different scenarios, what strategies can we actually use to safeguard against future injustices? I certainly don't have the answers, but a couple ideas spring to mind.

One possibility would be a new set of requirements to pair zoned parking facilities for automated vehicles with defined service areas. This could impose a reasonable degree of equitable distribution of parking facilities, avoiding concentrations in low-income neighborhoods.

Another consideration is tamping down on the gentrification that could accelerate with the conversion of parking in affluent communities. Setting more aggressive affordable housing requirements as the zoning requirements for parking are loosened would be a fair bargain for developers and could help retain a broader economic mix.

There is no quick answer on this problem. There isn't even clarity to what extent the market forces would align to create impacts on these neighborhoods that would drown out the improvements from the overall parking reductions. But this is an issue to follow and actively discuss as each little policy decision and regulatory change move us closer to a paradigm shift.

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