By Bill Smith

We live in a time of great change when it comes to parking. The industry has been revolutionized in recent years by the development of many new technologies that are designed to make parking more customer-friendly, while at the same time benefitting owners and operators by making operations more manageable. These technological advances have transformed the ways owners and operators manage their parking assets, and they’ve even changed the ways drivers approach parking.

Today, we are on the cusp of another technological revolution that will carry extraordinary implications for the parking industry. The age of connected and self-driving vehicles will soon be in full bloom and each will present a host of challenges and opportunities. While these future vehicles may seem like the stuff of science fiction, it won’t be long before each plays an important role in our transportation system.

Getting Connected

The connected vehicle is already well on its way to becoming a reality. In just a few years all new cars will have vehicle infrastructure communications and will be connected to the grid. Our vehicles will be able to communicate with traffic technology and recommend which routes to take to avoid congestion and reach our destinations more quickly. They will also take us right to available parking spaces and automatically pay for the exact amount of time we need to park.

According to Nigel Bullers, CEO of EasyPark in Vancouver, the primary challenge for operators and municipal parking managers is forecasting what future connected cars will be able to do. He says that, ultimately, there will need to be a meeting of the minds between what auto manufacturers think their smart cars should do and what consumers actually want.

“It’s not as easy as it may seem to predict what features will be present and how operators and municipalities should plan,” said Bullers. “Look at your smart phone and how you use it. We all have a phone full of apps, but most of us primarily use one or two. The big question facing carmakers is what types of functionality people will want. This uncertainty can make it difficult for operators and municipal planners to plan effectively to work with connected vehicles.”

Bullers thinks that the first step is to look at the technologies on which we already rely.

“We are all already used to paying automatically for bridge and roadway tolls with transponders,” said Bullers. “We value the convenience of not having to stop and dig for change, and we no longer think twice about automated payment.

“Think about the hassle we face with paying for parking,” continued Bullers. “Wouldn’t it make sense to be able to automatically pay for parking in the same way? A connected car, with an empowered phone app or an on-dash app connected to your phone could handle all of the planning and the related transactions for you. It could access your schedule to see that you have a meeting downtown, connect to your GPS to lead you to the nearest parking facility, and pay for that parking. When your meeting is over, you could use your phone to remember where you parked, and then your phone or connected car could tell the facility that you are leaving and to stop charging you for parking.”

The smart car experience that Bullers envisions would provide a seamless experience for drivers. Much of the technology that’s necessary to make this experience work is already available on our cell phones, and carmakers have already begun to embed it right into the dashboards of our vehicles.

“Shared vehicles are popular in many of Canada’s larger cities, and this adds a tricky level of complexity,” said Bullers. “How do you charge the driver when he or she is using a car share service? We are going to have to figure this out.

“Ultimately, many of the answers will be figured out through trial and error,” continued Bullers. “We just need to test the waters and see where things go.”

Get Ready For Self-Driving Cars

The automation that we’ll experience with the advent of connected vehicles represents just a taste of what’s in store for the industry over the next 10 to 20 years. According to Barrie Kirk, executive director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence (CAVCOE), automated vehicles are just around the corner and they will transform Canada’s roadways.

“The original car had a huge impact on society in the 20th Century,” said Kirk. “The impact of the automated vehicle will be on par.”

The most important benefit of automated vehicles will be safety. According to Kirk, we can expect roadway accidents and deaths to decrease by 80%. In Canada this will translate to as many as 1,600 fewer deaths a year.

As beneficial as this technology will be overall, Kirk believes that it will severely test the nation’s parking industry.

“Starting around 2020 the parking industry business model will be severely disrupted,” said Kirk. “There will be less demand for parking because there will be more driverless taxis and ride share services, which will lead to reduced demand for private cars. The average Canadian family will be able to save about $3,000 a year by using driverless taxis rather than private vehicles because they won’t have to pay for upkeep or parking.”

Mary Smith, senior vice president and director of parking consulting for Walker Parking Consultants, agrees that self-driving vehicles will change the landscape for the parking industry. However she believes it will be closer to 2030 before the impact of self-driving vehicles is severe. The average age of cars on the road is 11 years, and it will be a while before newer vehicles are replaced by self-driving cars.

“What’s going to happen is first we will have autonomous parking long before cars are driving around cities empty,” said Smith. “In that mode, the car will drop you off and will rely on parking guidance to park itself. Since the car doors won’t need to be opened after parking, you will actually be able to fit four cars into the same area of space that can today accommodate three.

“Studies that look closely at trip data, car ownership, and subscription services like Uber find that parking demand  could ultimately go down by as much as 40%,” said Smith.

“Today the typical family owns, on average 2.1 cars,” continued Smith. “But according to a study by the University of Michigan, that number could reduce to 1.2 (a reduction of 43%) based on one self-driving family car being able to make all family trips.  Another study by the Earth Institute at Columbia looked at Ann Arbor, Michigan and found that subscription car services could result in a 51% reduction of car ownership. Factoring in commuting by non-residents and all visitor parking, we should see about a 40% reduction in parking demand as well, with the highest reductions in urban areas and smaller reductions in suburban and rural areas.”

According to Smith, there are a number of factors that will lead to fewer privately owned vehicles in urban areas while numbers hold steady in more remote areas. First, self-driving subscription vehicles will be more prevalent in cities, and the cost savings they offer will make it more attractive for families to downsize when it comes to the number of vehicles they own. Today the typical family owns, on average 2.1 cars, but according to Smith that number is expected to flip around to 1.2 within the next generation.

Another factor that will drive the trend is the preferred lifestyle of Millennials. As they marry and begin to raise families, many will relocate to the suburbs to gain access to schools and more affordable housing. However, they aren’t expected to change their lifestyles appreciably, but will instead move to walkable mixed-use downtown areas, from which they can easily take transit or walk to work.

Ultimately we could see an increase of up to 33% in capacity combined with more than a 40% decrease in demand. That could result in as much as 75% less area devoted to parking. ”

So, how should owners, operators, and municipal parking planners prepare for this new reality? According to Mary Smith, preparation has started in planning circles, but many planners are on the wrong track.

“Some planners and designers are suggesting new parking garages should be designed to be convertible to other uses as the area required for parking decreases. But I think that’s a mistake,” said Smith. “First, it is far more expensive to design garages to be convertible than most planners understand. They are purpose-built buildings and guessing what the future land use will be, much less what the design will be to meet the market in the future is extremely risky. We’ve designed a lot of garages for future expansion over our 50-year history and only a handful have ever been expanded. Second, the decline in area required for parking is going to happen over a long term, not overnight. When demand falls parking owners aren’t going to convert their new garages. They are going to develop new buildings over parking lots and then as demand drops further, they will tear down and redevelop older more obsolete structures without replacing the parking. Only in the relatively rare case of a single new parking garage serving an entire property will designing for future conversion make sense.”

Smith suggests that rather than planning for re-purposing newly developed structures down the road, build them to accommodate the new reality.  Pickup/dropoff is going to be an issue with auto-parking, much less self-driving cars; if there is no place to do it outside the parking structure, the designer should plan for passenger loading shortly after entering (which then must meet requirements for passenger loading zones for persons with disabilities.)

Residential development presents a different set of challenges and opportunities. According to Mary Smith, these trends will have a particularly large impact on residential parking demand, which is already going down due to Millenials and car sharing services.

“My advice to residential developers would be, if you think you need two floors of parking build one and use stackers to park households’ second cars,” said Smith. “When the trend plays out and those residential spaces are no longer needed you can convert them to storage units for residents, which always seem to be inadequate anyway. Don’t build more parking; be creative about how you use the parking you do build.”

According to both Walker’s Smith and CAVCOE’s Kirk, parking owners and operators will face significant decreases in parking revenue, which should also be planned for.

“Cities have an even bigger revenue loss coming,” said Smith. “Cities will lose revenue not only from their on-street and off-street parking, but also from enforcement tickets, and in some cases parking taxes and sales taxes on private parking. For example, on-street metered spaces on each block face will likely be converted to passenger loading zones.  They need to plan for those losses.”

Smith also suggests that city transportation authorities will partner with private firms to provide and maintain the infrastructure that is necessary for self-driving vehicles, and then share in the revenues from the subscription car services, similar to the way the electric grid was developed in the US in the 1890’s and continues to be maintained today through the user fees.

CAVCOE’s Kirk suggests that owners and municipal planners look for other sources of parking income.

“There may be an opportunity for operators to develop parking outside of cities where cars can be cleaned or serviced,” said Kirk. “Electric vehicles are a technology whose time has finally come, and these remote parking and maintenance facilities could provide the perfect place for cleaning and maintaining them.”

Of course, if there’s one thing we do know, it’s that human behavior is unpredictable. EasyPark’s Bullers isn’t convinced that acceptance of self-driving vehicles will necessarily lead to families downsizing the number of vehicles they own.

“Cars aren’t just a form of transportation, they are also a form of self-expression.” said Bullers. “Plus, a lot of us like to be able to carry our stuff with us. Our cars are filled with clothes, or golf clubs, or other things that we like to carry around.”

That may be so, according to Mary Smith, but most believe it is the safety benefits that will drive the use of self-driving vehicles. The telematics in cars will know that it was the driver in manual mode that caused an accident, and insurance rates will skyrocket for those choosing not to use self-driving mode. In any event, it’s clear that we need to rethink the way we approach parking. These technologies will dramatically alter the public’s approach to driving—and parking. The parking industry needs to be prepared.

“We need to end the ‘more is better’ philosophy,” said Smith. “We need to start thinking in terms of building just enough parking for commerce to thrive. Demand is already going down and that’s going to accelerate.”

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