The Future of Everything covers the innovation and technology transforming the way we live, work and play, with monthly issues on health, money, artificial intelligence and more. This month is Cities & Real Estate, online starting June 4 and in the paper on June 11.
Architects, urban planners and parking industry experts are now imagining a future in which parking garages are turned into commercial kitchens, fitness centers and transportation hubs where driverless taxis recharge between trips. Parking structures whose sloping floors make them hard to repurpose would be candidates for the wrecking ball, clearing the way for green spaces or new development.
“We won’t need street parking, we won’t need parking structures that much, and we certainly won’t need below-grade parking structures,” says Andy Cohen, Los Angeles-based co-CEO of Gensler, a global architecture firm.
Mr. Cohen and other experts say the demand for urban parking spaces will plummet in coming years as a result of several trends.
The rise of autonomous ride-hailing vehicles and micro-mobility devices such as electric bikes and e-scooters will play a key role, they say, as will lower rates of car ownership among Gen-Z and millennials. In addition, cities have been moving away from minimum parking requirements that in some cases forced developers to build more square footage per car than per office worker. And remote work and online shopping—both trends that accelerated during the pandemic—mean fewer trips downtown for office workers and shoppers.
“That is going to change parking demand significantly, and in the near term, long before you get to shared electric autonomous vehicles,”
Mary S. Smith,
senior vice president at the parking and mobility consulting firm Walker Consultants, says of the decline of commuting into urban centers. By 2040 or 2050, she predicts, parking demand in city centers could fall to around 30% of pre-pandemic levels—closer to 15% if hybrid workweeks become the norm.
“There will always be a need for parking, no matter what vehicles are driving us around in the future,” says
president and chief executive of Parkway Corp., a Philadelphia-based parking and real-estate company. But he calls the post-Covid era “a big experiment” given the shift to hybrid work schedules.
A multipurpose mobility hub
The prospect of urban streets bustling with shared roving robotaxis or other autonomous vehicles has spurred Gensler to design office buildings with parking facilities that can easily be repurposed—even though that raises front-end costs by up to 15% for features like higher ceilings.
The National Parking Association envisions the parking garage of the future as a multipurpose mobility hub. A 2018 rendering from the industry group shows a garage with electric-vehicle charging stations, stacked parking for autonomous vehicles, or AVs, and separate entry lanes for shared cars driven by humans. There are shops on several levels, with pickup and drop-off zones out front.
“AVs could pick up a person in their neighborhood on demand, and take them to a terminal station where the person goes on heavy train or subway to the central core of the city,” says Giovanni Circella, director of the 3 Revolutions Future Mobility Program at the University of California, Davis.
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The range of EVs will likely become vastly greater, Mr. Circella says, and one day charging a battery could take minutes—two developments that would shrink the need for storage for electric AVs. Wherever AVs parked, the absence of drivers would mean they could squeeze in more tightly than today’s cars. Automated garages that whisk cars to other levels are already in operation.
As long as there have been cars, people have needed somewhere to stash them. A 2011 estimate by researchers at Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley, found that the U.S. had at least 722 million parking spaces. That is about three spaces for each of the 240 million passenger vehicles.
“If indeed AVs become viable and pervasive, then we may very well end up in a situation where parking inventories are less or not needed,” says Mikhail Chester, an associate professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering at Arizona State who helped with the estimate.
As of 2017, San Francisco—one of the rare cities that manually tallies its parking supply—had more than 442,000 publicly available spaces. The city says its 275,500 on-street spaces, measured end to end, would stretch nearly 900 miles, longer than California’s coast.
Parking plus perks
Even as demand continues to exist, companies are starting to rethink how parking works.
Parkway, the Philadelphia firm, wants to make it easier for drivers to find, access and pay for parking without taking a ticket or pulling out a credit card. It has teamed up with Austin-based FlashParking to digitize Parkway’s facilities, a step toward creating a frictionless process that would start with motorists using voice commands to ask one’s car to locate parking.
Before long, drivers should be able to ask their car for parking suggestions and be prompted by questions—“Do you want to park very close to the place? Are you willing to walk a few blocks?”—to get the best option from a menu of garages near their destination, says Donald Shoup, an urban planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Parking demand in city centers could fall to around 30% of pre-pandemic levels—closer to 15% if hybrid workweeks become the norm.
In Seattle, Flash is working with a parking operator to house e-scooters in a garage near the Space Needle, part of a plan to put about 500 scooters in such facilities around the city. That location will also host electric-vehicle chargers that Flash says will have a reservation system and provide real-time availability.
“It’s parking plus last-mile mobility, and it’s parking plus EV charging,” says Dan Sharplin, FlashParking’s executive chairman. “Those are the two things we think are ripe today.”
For existing garages, Mr. Sharplin sees a role as logistics hubs where delivery companies transfer truckloads of packages to smaller conveyances like robots. Ghost kitchens to prepare food for delivery would work on the ground floors, Ms. Smith says. And below-ground parking could become data centers or fitness clubs, says Mr. Cohen, whose firm has developed a concept for turning the top level of a San Jose, Calif., garage into an activity-filled park.
Before the pandemic, Flash helped Las Vegas use excess garage capacity in an attempt to entice Uber drivers off jammed streets during downtime using an app. In the evenings, two city-owned garages little used by tourists were outfitted as lounges with Wi-Fi and bathrooms. The city recently relaunched the program and expects it to ease congestion when tourism and ride-hailing rebound, says Brandy Stanley, city parking services manager.
That same model could also apply in a world dominated by shared self-driving fleets, minus the drivers and bathrooms. Those vehicles would need somewhere to recharge, be cleaned and await pings from customers, and today’s garages could work, with pickup and drop-off on the lower level, Ms. Smith says.
The owners of garages that wind up being demolished will be left with precious real estate, says Christopher Leinberger, emeritus professor at George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis. “They’re going to be out of the 20th century business that they’re in now,” he says, “and the 21st century business is going to be much more valuable.”
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