Thursday, December 10, 2015

Quality of Place and the Future of Parking

By Matt DeVeau, Project Manager

In the past few months, this blog has featured a couple of brief ruminations on how automation might drastically re-shape labor markets. It’s a fascinating topic with enormous implications for community and economic development. But despite the enormity of “the future of work” question, I think there are many more ways in which technological advancements might impact our field in some way.

I’m a city planning nerd at heart, so I spend a lot of time thinking about the physical spaces we occupy and the investments and policies that shape them. And I’m increasingly of the belief that technologically driven shifts in consumer behavior may soon lead to fundamental changes in our built environment. Given the importance of “quality of place” in areas such as talent attraction and retention, I thought I’d share one of these thoughts here. This isn’t going to be an amorphous ode to “disruption” or a far-out hypothetical. Instead, let’s start with a trend that is already well underway: ridesharing. 

I think we can by now skip the full “what is Uber?” explainer, but let’s at least pause to illustrate the general concept: you want to go somewhere, you open an app in your smartphone, summon a vehicle to your current location, plug the address of your destination into the app, and off you go. Needless to say, this type of service could not have existed prior to the widespread availability of smartphones and GPS, but once the technological conditions were right, the concept took off. Less than seven years since its founding, Uber has reached a valuation of $62.5 billion, bigger than General Motors. 

To me, the popularity of Uber and other ridesharing services is simple: they are affordable and convenient. So much so, in fact, that individuals in some markets might plausibly forgo car ownership altogether without adding costs or sacrificing much in the way of the freedom and independence available through vehicle ownership. I’ve done a few back-of-the-envelope calculations for Atlanta, and it was a close call depending on how I tweaked assumptions about things like commute distance, desire/ability to use other transportation modes on occasion, etc.

And that’s all with humans doing the driving. As we’ve discussed in this space previously, autonomous or “self-driving” vehicles are well into the testing and deployment stages. It may be quite some time before they are capable of reliably navigating complex and unpredictable surface streets as opposed to relatively simple and predictable travel along freeways. But any advancement in autonomous vehicle technology would serve to make ridesharing more viable.

So what does this all have to do with urban form? Parking. If your primary mode of transportation is a car, think about all the places you park throughout a day – your residence, your job, a store, a park, your place of worship, etc. That’s a lot of storage space, and it adds up. According to one recent estimate, 14 percent of the total land area in Los Angeles County was devoted to parking

But if ridesharing continues to advance as it has – and especially if significant headway is made on the autonomous vehicle front – then we could easily see many individuals (primarily but not exclusively in larger urban markets) drop car ownership in favor of “renting” on-demand rides. In this scenario, vehicles won’t sit idle while their owner is working, sleeping, shopping, or eating – they’ll simply move on to the next fare. And in this case, we won’t need nearly as much parking.

The planning and design implications of such a future are too weighty to get into here. And it’s not practical on any level – technological, political, etc. – to suggest an immediate wholesale change in our mindset. (Seriously, if you’ve never been to a commercial or multifamily residential rezoning hearing, stop by some time and see what issue dominates the conversation.) But the way we price and regulate parking has always been kind of a mess and this in turn has driven up development costs, chewed up land that could be economically productive with another use, and generally led to a built environment that is not made for humans. 

In the overall context of thinking about quality of place, communities should think about how attitudes towards things like parking might change in the coming years. Are existing regulations flexible enough for a future where demand for parking may fall and should we let market forces determine the answer to that question? (Imagine that.) Does it make long-term sense to direct public investments toward things like parking decks in the name of spurring private development in the short-run? Should communities begin to think about redevelopment strategies and frameworks should there prove to be a future excess supply of parking? These are all questions that I think are worthy of asking in a changing world.