No parking as a form of paradise

Parking, like phonographs and buggy whips, could be on its way out.

That seems absurd, since our society certainly isn’t giving up on the car (not to mention the bus, van, SUV, utility truck, moving van, 16-wheeler and so forth).

But with the rise of self-driving cars, some people are seriously starting to consider whether or not we will need as much parking in future generations.

In Canada, over a 10-year period from 1999 to 2009, the rate of licensing among 25- to 34-year-olds dropped from 92 per cent to 87 per cent. In fact, the decline was taking place among all groups from teens to 54-year-olds. (Only seniors seem to be driving more, as people live longer and stay in their homes longer.)

The same decline has been taking place in the United States and other western countries.

People are driving less. They’re driving fewer miles, they’re getting licenses later in life, and they’re choosing not to drive at all, in some cases, opting for bikes or public transit or ridesharing or Uber.

The expectation is that self-driving cars will accelerate this trend, sending it rocketing into the stratosphere. If self-driving taxis are cheap and ubiquitous, and ridesharing can be mediated by computer, then many people won’t bother to get a car at all. Those who do own a car may be able, eventually, to summon it and send it to find its own parking spot, and maybe recharge or refuel.

If this comes to pass (and it’s still a far off dream) it can’t come soon enough.

Parking lots are undoubtedly among the worst-designed, worst-planned, ugliest, and costliest things we build.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a close call with someone almost backing over you in a parking lot. A lot of hands just went up. Parking lots are the awkward space in which pedestrians and cars interact by design, and no one has figured out yet how to make humans hardy enough to survive the encounters unscathed.

I asked an academic who studied urban design once about why parking lots forced pedestrians to walk down, and often cross, major traffic lanes. He said they assumed the cars would drive slowly, so I guess he had never been to a parking lot in his life before.

If you ever get a chance, go up in a small aircraft and take a look at the parking lots of your city’s downtown. You’ll notice that the parking lot around the malls are bigger than the malls themselves. They take up vast swathes of real estate.

Yet if we cut back on parking, we create huge problems. Traffic jams. Extra pollution. Angry, frustrated drivers. Drivers who vote. So civic politicians spend a lot of time crafting parking policies and making sure there are plenty of parking spots. They also spend plenty of time paying for it if they get it wrong.

Yet that century-long battle, going back to the Model T, might be nearing an end.

It’s probably not going to quite happen, or to happen slowly if at all. But we might be moving in that direction within the next five or 10 years.

It’s worth thinking about it as a goal, right now. If we could eliminate, say, half of all parking spaces by 2030, what would we do with the space?

We’d have the opportunity to re-make a huge swathe of civic real estate – to consider adding housing, shops, parks, plazas, or civic buildings. The next time you’re circling a parking lot, think about what you’d do with all that space.


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