Jason Bordoff (@JasonBordoff), a former energy adviser to President Obama, is a professor of professional practice in international and public affairs and founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
New technologies, from small-scale renewables and vertical farms to smart grids and digitally connected sensors, promise some of the most exciting changes for the world’s cities in the 21st century. Far less exciting, but arguably even more important, will be the coming revolution in the nightmare that is urban parking.
Parking dramatically changes urban landscapes-for the worse. Large areas of downtowns have been given over to asphalt, breaking up pedestrian areas of restaurants, shops and offices, and making cities less conducive to walking or cycling.
Cars are only on the road about 5% of the time, and take up valuable space when not in use. From office buildings to shopping malls, the acreage reserved for parking often equals that of the buildings themselves.
A 2011 study at the University of California-Berkeley found that the U.S. has up to two billion parking spots. Public parking below 60th street in New York City alone takes up space equivalent to half of Central Park. Car ownership in China is expanding so rapidly that Beijing is in need of 3.5 million new parking spaces.
The scale of the parking problem is made far worse by bad policy design. Cities usually mandate that all new residential and commercial buildings have a certain amount of parking. This can lead to some strange city requirements. For instance, St. Paul, Minn., requires four spaces for every hole on a golf course and one space for every three nuns in a convent.
In many parts of the country, new apartment buildings must have two parking spaces per unit -whether residents demand it or not. Of course, this parking is far from free, as developers fold the cost of parking into the price of apartments, offices, or goods and services. And cities typically calculate requirements for peak demand (like a shopping mall at the holidays).
Moreover, as Prof. Donald Shoup has explained in his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, city officials dramatically underprice public parking relative to its market value, leading people to drive when they might otherwise have taken mass transit, walked, cycled or carpooled. San Francisco in 2010 had nearly 450,000 parking spaces, over half of which were free street spots. Free or low-cost street parking, either metered or permitted for residents, effectively subsidizes driving.
Underpricing parking not only leads to more car use, but also to more driving as people cruise around looking for parking, contributing to pollution, traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. One study of a 15-block area near UCLA found over the course of one year motorists drove the distance between the earth and the moon four times over while trolling for free curb parking.
Despite the harms of cheap urban parking, many urban dwellers see it as a right. Yet technological change may soon bring relief.
The rise of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft have led to a dramatic shift in social norms, whereby young people increasingly are opting to live in cities and do not need, or want, to own a car. Shared cars are in use far more than privately owned vehicles, and fewer idle cars means more urban space can be reclaimed from parking.
The coming revolution in autonomous cars can accelerate this trend. As Uber’s Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden recently explained at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy, displacing the need for drivers will make it far more economical to move about with self-driving shared cars than to own a car-and that does not include the opportunity cost of driving, as riders will be able to use time en route to work, read or sleep.
Technology can also make carpooling far more efficient by better connecting riders going to and from the same place, further reducing cars on the road. Roughly 50% of Uber’s rides in San Francisco and 25% globally are now Uber Pool, according to Mr. Holden. Combining ride sharing with car sharing could cut the number of cars on the road-and that need to be parked-by 80% in major cities such as New York, according to MIT research.
With shared autonomous vehicles, there would be little need to park cars in downtown urban areas. Rather, autonomous vehicles could travel to garages on the outskirts of town to be recharged, cleaned and maintained.
Even there, autonomous vehicles would be able to park more efficiently, taking up less surface area. (Imagine the car letting you out, and then pulling into a tight spot with only an inch between the car to its left and right, since there’d be no need to open the doors.)
Policy could help accelerate this shift by pricing parking correctly. In 2011, San Francisco experimented with dynamic street pricing that varied depending on how busy city blocks and parking lots were, and found that circling for parking plummeted by 50%.
Cities could also abolish minimum parking requirements, and let the market determine how much residents and consumers value parking. When London did so, the amount of parking in new residential blocks promptly plunged, from an average of 1.1 spaces per flat to 0.6 spaces.
The potential for technology and policy to reduce the amount of urban area given over to parking is especially important in rapidly growing global megacities plagued with congestion-from Lagos and Karachi to Delhi and Beijing.
All of this matters for energy and climate change. Cheap parking encourages car use, and the search for parking increases driving, which increases oil demand and pollution. While shared self-driving cars may increase miles traveled by lowering the cost of driving, they also improve the economics of electric vehicles, which have higher capital costs but lower operating costs, by sharply increasing the utilization rate of cars. Moreover, heat-trapping oceans of asphalt can be reclaimed for parks or other public spaces.
Parking may seem boring. But it has a dramatic impact on how a city looks, how it feels, and how its resident move about. Cities of the future will be vastly improved when they need far less of it.
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