If you drive out to West Edmonton Mall, in Canada, you’ll arrive at the world’s biggest car park. With room for 20,000 vehicles – that’s at least 300,000 square metres – and another 10,000 in overflow parking, the area is comparable to the size of 84 American football fields (including the end zones).
That mall – and its Guinness World Record-holding car park – isn’t alone in its expansive approach. Parking is, after all, most of what cars do: the average automobile spends 95 per cent of its time sitting in place. A 2010 study from the University of California, Berkeley, found that the US has between 105 million and 2 billion parking spots, for roughly 300 million vehicles.
The metastasising of parking has had profound effects. On an aesthetic level, it makes cities grimly ugly. It’s expensive to build. And the emissions it causes may be worst of all.
When Donald Shoup, an urban-planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, looked at Westwood Village, a small neighbourhood near his university, he calculated that cars circling around in search of open spaces burn 178,000 litres of petrol and generate 662 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. Those numbers, Shoup says, are reflective of the situation in most cities’ congested cores.
But for the first time, urban experts see an end in sight. We are, they say, on the cusp of an era when cities can begin dramatically reducing the number of parking spaces they offer.
Why? For starters, more and more people are opting to live in city centres, where they don’t need – or want – to own a car. We’re also seeing the rapid emergence of self-driving technology, which could have huge benefits for urban design and the environment. After all, if cars can drive themselves, fleets of them could scurry around picking people up and dropping them off with robotic efficiency. That could result in many choosing not to own cars, causing the amount of parking needed to drop as well.
Gabe Klein, who has headed the transportation departments in Chicago and Washington, D.C., sees enormous potential. “All that parking could go away, and then what happens?” he asks. Klein imagines much of this paved-over space suddenly being freed up for houses, schools, playgrounds – just about anything.
North America’s obsession with parking began in the 1940s and ’50s, when car use exploded. Panicked cities realised they would soon run out of kerb space. In an effort to ward off that possibility, they passed minimum parking requirements: if a developer wanted to erect an office or apartment building, it also had to build parking.
Decades of perverse incentives served to cement the car as North America’s main mode of transportation. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, roughly 15.4 million Canadians travel to work, and four out of every five do so in a private vehicle. Based on these statistics, about 11.4 million workers drive to their jobs in cars, bringing along an additional 867,100 passengers.
Numbers like these make parking seem like an intractable problem. But something strange is happening to our relationship with cars.
“The car’s dominance is on the wane,” says Jeff Kenworthy, a professor of sustainable cities at Curtin University in Perth. He found that car use grew by 42 per cent globally in the ’60s. In the ’80s, it increased by 23 per cent. From 1995 to 2005, it went up by only 5 per cent.
While fuel costs and the growth of public transport have something to do with this pattern, Kenworthy suspects it’s also related to a concept known as ‘Marchetti’s wall’. In 1994, Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti noted that throughout history, most people disliked commuting more than one hour for work. If you’re faced with a longer commute, you rearrange your life: find a new job or move closer to the office.
In the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, public transport use increased and cities became denser, in part because younger adults weren’t leaving for the suburbs and seniors were moving back to walkable urban cores. As a global society, we slammed into Marchetti’s wall and backed away.
This shift isn’t necessarily set in stone. While the number of vehicle kilometres travelled per capita in the US began declining in 2005, it started to rise again in 2014. However, experts argue that the trend will likely accelerate because millennials are turning away from the car. Research by Frontier Group, a think tank that publishes work on transportation, found that the average annual distance driven by American 16- to 34-year-olds dropped 23 per cent between 2001 and 2009.
They’re also buying fewer vehicles than their parents did, which worries carmakers. “We have to face the growing reality that today, young people don’t seem to be as interested in cars as previous generations,” said Jim Lentz, the CEO of Toyota Motor North America, in a 2011 speech.
Millennials have embraced one mobility trend, however. In December 2014, the on-demand car service Uber reported that its drivers were making one million trips per day. According to a survey by market research firm GlobalWebIndex, 70 per cent of Uber’s U.S. customers are under the age of 35.
Uber is seeing especially rapid growth in its ride-sharing offering, UberPool, which matches travellers heading to roughly the same destination. The company introduced the service in San Francisco in August 2014, and already nearly 50 per cent of all Uber rides in the city are pooled.
Carpooling has been touted for decades as a way to use vehicles more efficiently, but it never took off because of an information problem: there was no way to coordinate rides on the fly. The smartphone has solved that conundrum. And when Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists crunched data on Boston-area commuting patterns, they found that if 50 per cent of drivers shifted to ride sharing, it would reduce congestion by 37 per cent and result in 19 per cent fewer vehicles on the road.
San Francisco–based parking consultant Jeffrey Tumlin, 47, is struck by the shift in the zeitgeist. “My generation was the last to believe that owning our own car would bring us freedom, autonomy, social status, sex,” he says. For today’s young people, the mobile phone is a much more potent technology.
As the Google self-driving car pulled out into a busy intersection, the steering wheel turned by itself. It was an unnerving sight, though the Google engineers riding inside were quite blasé: after 2.4 million kilometres, these vehicles have been in very few accidents. The guidance system is very cautious, says the engineer in the driver’s seat, hands folded in his lap.
Many urban experts believe the future of autonomous cars is in fleet deployment, not private ownership. At the University of Texas at Austin, Kara Kockelman, a professor of transportation engineering, found that a single shared autonomous vehicle could typically replace an average of ten privately owned ones. At night, when there was less demand, they could drive to a designated storage area that’s close to where the next trip will likely originate. The upshot, Kockelman figures, is that if you were to shift the entire city over, it would need a staggering 87.5 per cent less parking than it does today.
That community would also likely have a dramatically lower environmental footprint, not only because you’d get rid of the ‘circling’ that plagues urban traffic but because high-tech cars would be new – and, given that they’ll probably emerge en masse about ten years from now, electric. A quantitative traffic analysis published in Nature Climate Change in July 2015, co-authored by Berkeley Lab scientist Jeffrey Greenblatt, deduced that emissions would be 90 per cent lower if cars were autonomous, electric and shared.
This road has some speed bumps ahead. Most projections assume that ride-sharing firms will be the ones to deploy self-driving cars on a large scale. But what if they’re all privately owned? If you can read, watch TV, work and email while your car drives itself, the sting goes out of commuting.
That could prompt commutes of previously unfathomable lengths. Or we might find people deciding they never need to park because cars can circle on their own. Cruising could morph into a Monty Pythonesque parody of modern life: a street clogged with traffic, but all the cars are empty.
Opinions are divided about how serious these negative impacts could be. Many suspect Marchetti’s wall will remain in place. “Most people are not going to sit in a car for hours a day,” says Greenblatt. Others agree, noting that the generational reluctance to own a personal car isn’t likely to fade.
San Francisco could be giving us a preview of what a lower-parking future would look like. The city’s parklet programme, founded in 2010, invites owners of homes and businesses to apply to install a green space in the parking lane in front of their properties. The plan has since been emulated in locations such as London, with a similar project currently under development in Toronto.
In San Francisco’s Mission District, for example, two kerbside spots were completely overhauled. Built out of huge, curved pieces of wood, one looks like a ship beached on the side of the road. In the other, thick desert vegetation – some clipped to resemble a triceratops – spills out in front of a private residence.
There are now more than 50 parklets throughout San Francisco. These strips provide a vision of how a city could evolve: imagine if 90 per cent of all kerbside parking spots were turned into strips of public parks, filled with greenery, urban gardening and people relaxing. With fewer cars circling the streets, the future of urban living could be oddly peaceful.