To find one of Berlin’s best chill-out spots, take the elevator in the Neukölln Arcaden shopping mall to the fifth-floor parking garage. Then it’s just a quick trudge up the ramp to the garage’s top floor to reach your destination—a hybrid nightclub/urban garden where stylish young people sip Club Mate, snack on a rotating menu of street food, and dance as the sun sets over the city.
Camping out in reclaimed parking lots isn’t just for German hipsters and thirsty backpackers. Thanks to the exploding popularity of car-sharing services and the heralded arrival of autonomous vehicles, cities around the world are reimagining their soon-to-be irrelevant parking garages. After a century of urban planning that prioritized the comfort of cars, formerly auto-forward sections of cities are being redesigned for the joy of people.
Just last month, San Francisco proposed a plan to redevelop their Moscone Convention Center’s 732-space garage into affordable housing units and hotel rooms. In 2015, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois converted their north campus’ 11,000 square-foot parking garage into an student startup incubator aptly named “The Garage.” Then there’s Square Roots, an urban farming accelerator co-founded by Kimbal Musk (yep, Elon’s brother) that installed ten shipping container gardens in a Brooklyn parking lot and now yields up to 500 pounds of fresh produce per week.
Innovative ideas like these offer the promise of breathing room for our increasingly space-crunched cities. Cars are made to be driven, but they spend an average of 95 percent of their days at rest. In response, big box parking lots, multi-level garages, and street parking became hallmarks of North American cities, depriving our urban centres of valuable development space. It’s estimated that 13 percent of Los Angeles is reserved for parking, while Houston has a staggering 30 parking spaces per resident.
As people continue to flood into urban centres, and rental prices in many cities skyrocket, property developers, city planners, and policymakers are increasingly looking to autonomous vehicles as a source of space relief. Shared, self-driving vehicles rarely need to park during the day—once you’re finished grabbing your weekend groceries, your elderly neighbour is ready to be shuttled to her eye appointment. And when demand for these cars decreases in the early morning hours, they can head to the inner suburbs where space is more plentiful and affordable. In a 2015 report, the OECD estimated that a shared self-driving fleet could remove 90 percent of cars from our city centres. With numbers like that, we could finally un-pave paradise and tear down the parking lot.
Driverless cars will hit the streets of California in the form of share taxis as early as April 2018 thanks to regulations passed last month. But despite the bold predictions of many—like think tank RethinkX, who predicts 95 percent of our driving will be done in autonomous cars by 2030—it’ll likely be a gradual process until the technology is adopted widely enough to achieve market saturation. The recent pedestrian fatality caused by an autonomous vehicle put a damper on Elon Musk’s claim that any delay in adopting the technology means we’re effectively “killing people,” and we don’t yet have clear data on their safety. Plus there’s the labyrinthian network of policies to consider. City bylaws and building codes take time to catch up to new technology, and even a pedestrian-friendly city like Vancouver has rules on the books that require at least two parking spaces for each townhouse (plus visitor parking). Even if we all adopt self-driving transit options tomorrow, it could take a decade to see a significant percentage of our parking garages torn down.
Taking into account these barriers, forward-thinking designers and architects are choosing to build transition spaces—facilities that can accommodate cars today, then be easily reconfigured as the demand for parking eventually diminishes. The design firm Gensler is renowned for convertible commercial spaces like the new 84.51° Centre in downtown Cincinnati, whose three levels of parking are designed to easily switch to offices as needed. And in Los Angeles, AvalonBay Communities Inc. has planned a 475-unit apartment complex and retail plaza whose ground floor can be renovated to accommodate a steady stream of autonomous cars doing pick up and drop off. The complex’s two levels of underground parking will also be built with higher-than-normal ceilings and un-sloped floors, allowing them to be converted into recreational facilities like a gym or a theater. “The opportunity is not only to create new places that accommodate driverless cars,” writes Gensler, “but to reshape our existing cities and towns into the kind of amenity-rich, vibrant places that we all enjoy.”
Whether it’s in 2022 or 2052, when autonomous cars take over they won’t just be disrupting our cities’ planning codes—they’ll drastically change our lifestyles. The Boston Consulting Group estimates autonomous, shared vehicles will grant Americans a cumulative 30 billion extra hours per year. Instead of wasting time driving, sitting in traffic or looking for parking spaces, we could use our spare commute time to work, spend time with our families, or simply enjoy our urban environment.
It may seem like a utopian vision, but according to Antonio Loro, a Vancouver-based urban planner and consultant who works with city agencies to plan for self-driving vehicles, it could easily veer into dystopia if we simply replicate our existing driving culture. Loro stresses that we need to be very clear on what forms of shared, self-driving vehicles we’re investing in, and designing around. “Some people have in mind taxis that mainly serve individual passengers, while others are thinking about share taxis that move a handful of passengers at once,” says Loro. “Fewer people are thinking about a kind of shared vehicle that moves a large number of passengers simultaneously. I like to call it a ‘bus.’”
The prospect of autonomous vehicles is alluring, but if our goal is to create vibrant cities we can’t assume that giving the wealthy their own private AI chauffeurs will spur a massive, human-centred overhaul of our urban infrastructure—and maybe we don’t need to reinvent the wheel in the meantime. “There are already alternatives to private car ownership, like using public transit, walking, cycling,” notes Loro. “The more people opt for vehicles that are more shared, the more the city will actually see those benefits that people are getting excited about—like smoother traffic flow and less space eaten up by roads and parking…We don’t have to wait for robot taxis or shared taxis to prioritize urban space.”