Parking lots: an urban endangered species

23 July 2019
5 min read

We all know them: those custodians of the pavement, often donned in reflective uniforms and armed with their weapon of ticketry. Everywhere you go in the world, parking inspectors tend to provoke the same irritations and avoidance responses. This kerbside dynamic is pretty universal. Yet it's becoming increasingly dated too.

A new urban mobility revolution is underway, transforming our city streets at a thunderous pace, and repurposing our pavement for more connected, greener, multimodal forms of transportation. From bike shares to autonomous transit, along with more traditional options such as rail and walking, a new urban ecosystem is on the rise. It's inevitably altering the physical landscape, as well as the conventional thinking underpinning city planning, and changing the way we own our sustained future.

So, what will we do with all those car parks and kerbs, as automated vehicles (AVs) and shared vehicles increasingly dominate the road? How can we re-conceptualise these soon-to-be empty, unused spaces to foster more meaningful interactions and intelligent design, and to future-ready our cities? What opportunities will open for us when we no longer need to park?

It's more than just a matter of parking – it's an altogether different way of 'doing city'.

It's about mobility, not cars

As it stands, our cities have devoted an extraordinary amount of scarce space and resources to parking. In Melbourne alone, it's estimated that "there are 40 per cent more residential parking spaces in the city than the vehicles owned", adding to the fact that 61 per cent of the city's street space is allocated to roads and on-street car parking, despite vehicles accounting for only 22 per cent of the trips to, from and within the Hoddle Grid.

But a century-old automotive love affair is now coming to an end, as trends like ride sharing, electrification and Mobility-as-a-Service come onto the scene. Two strapping tonnes of steel in your driveway doesn't hold the same lustre as a smart device that can facilitate a lifestyle of connected convenience.

Suddenly, the conversation is far more about mobility than about cars. Authors of Faster, Smarter, Greener describe this shift to what they call a "CHIP" mobility environment – a world that is connected, heterogeneous, intelligent and personalised. The new fulcrum of intelligent design is based on people and their lifestyles, rather than on their vehicles.

Consequently, cities will have to unlock a variety of mobility solutions, ranging from bikes to pedestrians, car sharing to heavy rail, to provide ease of movement for all.

But where will the cars go?

The truth is, the parking industry argues, while we may not require as much space or parking lots in the future as we now have, "parking, as both a function and an industry, isn't going anywhere" – but it won't stay the same either.

New modes of transportation like AVs (whether they will be owned or shared), will need to live 'somewhere' when not in use. With more than half of the population asleep at night, not all AVs will be occupying the streets at 2 am to pick up late night revellers or shift workers.

And with Uber's recent announcement that Melbourne will be one of the test sites for flying taxi service UberAIR, the need for adaptation to these new breeds of transportation is becoming more urgent than ever.

The shift from humans parking cars to self-parking AVs will also revolutionise the infrastructure required. In fact, multinational automotive corporation Daimler has partnered with Bosch to introduce a 'fully-autonomous auto valet parking environment' at Mercedes World in Germany, where AVs can drop off passengers at the lobby and park themselves.

MIT spin-off company WiTricity is currently developing an EV charger using patented magnetic resonance technology that enables a charging panel on the ground to transfer power wirelessly into the car. It's not only about offering spaces for cars anymore; it's about what the spaces can offer.

From car parks to parks, office spaces and homes?

But what if the great 'carpocalypse' actually does descend on our cities? What do we do with this abandoned architecture, and what will we build? Kerbs will be reimagined, with the current idle space repurposed for the future as a buzzing hive of data collection thanks to AVs dropping off and picking up passengers.

Parking spaces will be narrower, allowing our streets to accommodate more public transport and active movement. Parking lots could become green spaces to enhance liveability and encourage cycling, walking and outdoor living.

Parking garages could present all kinds of conversion opportunities, ranging from office space to apartment blocks to fitness centres. Architecture firm Gensler proposes that the infrastructure could even be reworked into living and working "pods": automated vehicles drive into their portals and open up into condensed living rooms, bathrooms and kitchens – the 'ultimate micro unit' of blended living design.

Driving the shift

All these, however, are more than merely about finding solutions and ways of repurposing parking lots if and when they become obsolete. This is about driving the shift towards a new vibrant, connected and sustainable urbanism.

Jennifer Henaghan, Deputy Director of Research at the American Planning Association, believes the big question about the future of parking and kerbs is not a threat but a great opportunity for planners.

"Should it be used for housing, do we want more people to come in? Do we need more retail space? Should it be more places to encourage civic gathering spaces and public activities, parks and things of that nature?" she asks. "That really gives cities an opportunity to examine their values and priorities and what it is that they want to do with this sudden influx of available land, which in many cities has been quite a rarity up until this point."

In addition to this, open source projects such as SharedStreets are doing what traditional maps cannot do, by building an open source infrastructure that enables public-private collaboration and empowers city stakeholders to inform better transport solutions for seamlessly connected streets.

As AVs and other technological trends continue to converge, our city streets will naturally need to adapt and change. Governments will have to spearhead these conversations, looking at a whole suite of responsibilities including rezoning, new governance frameworks, new transport taxes, and investing in all kinds of new digital infrastructure and private partnerships to pull off true transformation. It's no small feat, but it's not really an option, is it?

The cities that move faster towards change will be those who don't put innovation 'in park', but instead drive it forward.

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Russ Yell
Written by
Russ Yell

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