(TNS) -- Urban planners learn early that there can never be enough parking. It’s one reason American cities, including Detroit, disfigure themselves with so many ugly concrete parking garages. And it’s why historic buildings often fall to wreckers when a surface parking lot appears to offer a more lucrative revenue stream.
But it’s just possible that the coming of the autonomous self-driving car may break the stranglehold that parking has on cities like Detroit. Most proponents of autonomous vehicles predict we’ll need a lot fewer parking spaces in the future because driverless cars will not need to park at all, except at night. Rather, they will roam around during the day, seeking new passengers or running errands instead of sitting empty all day in a lot or deck.
Combined with the growing popularity of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, new bike-sharing programs such as Detroit’s MoGo service that starts up next month, transit options such as the Qline that begins service in May and the trend toward downtown living, autonomous vehicles could drastically reduce the need for parking lots and decks in the city.
That would bring on a revolution in design. American planners long ago adopted regulations that mandate minimum parking for all sorts of uses. These requirements drive up the cost of construction and leave an urban streetscape marred with unsightly parking decks and surface lots.
From an urban design standpoint, it could be a blessing if demand for parking goes down. But don’t expect it just yet. If anything, recent trends have pushed up — rather than reduced — demand for parking in Detroit and in suburban downtowns such as Birmingham and Ferndale.
One reason: Employers responded to the squeeze of the Great Recession by reducing their real estate costs. They did that by packing more workers into the same size or smaller building footprints. In effect, that meant more parking needed for the same old buildings.
The newfound popularity of urban downtowns has pushed up parking needs even more. Businessman Dan Gilbert’s aides estimate that Quicken Loans and its spinoff firms have brought 17,000 workers to the downtown Detroit area since 2010. Some of those mostly millennial workers bike or walk to work. But many look for a parking space. It’s a big reason why even outlying lots and street parking on the fringes of downtown Detroit look so full these days.
But at some point, the coming of autonomous vehicles and alternative means of transit may turn that tide. And so some architects and city planners are beginning to grapple with what that means.
One intriguing possibility: Architects will design parking decks in the future to be convertible to housing, office space and other uses as the need arises. It’s not such a strange idea. Cities have long since converted old factories and warehouses to loft housing; unused churches now host brew pubs, and the early 20th-Century office buildings lining Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit have been converted to apartments, retail, restaurants and the occasional nightclub.
But converting parking decks to new uses will mean building them in new ways. For one thing, the slightly sloping floors of most parking decks (allowing rain and snowmelt to flow toward drains) will have to be flat to accommodate potential new uses. Ceilings will have to be higher if we expect people to live there one day.
Then, too, office and residential uses tend to carry more weight than parked cars, so the parking structures will have to be designed stronger. And architects will have to think about leaving room for mechanical ductwork and windows, even if a garage may not be converted for many years.
This is not all fanciful. Planners in Seattle, Boston, Denver, Miami and Atlanta are all mulling building parking decks in this new way. So far, it's just talk for now.
Suburban shopping malls surrounded by seas of asphalt will also change. Already under pressure from online shopping habits, malls won’t need anywhere near as much surface parking as they have in the past. In this vision, self-driving cars will pick up and drop off shoppers, then drive on to other tasks, rather than looking for parking.
Michael Osment, senior vice president of the Taubman Co., the Bloomfield Hills-based developer of upscale malls, said at a transportation conference in Southfield recently that millions of square feet of mall parking lots will have to be redeveloped as online shopping and autonomous vehicles cut the need for parking spaces.
Already, Sterling Heights has asked the Detroit architectural firm Archive DS to work up a plan for converting Lakeside Mall in this way. Mark Nickita, a partner in the firm, showed a preliminary design that fills in the existing parking lots with new buildings and an extension of a nearby pond to create a more walkable environment. “We left the big boxes, take out all the guts, and design in a mixed-use community,” Nickita said.
The plans are just concepts at this point. But, then, that’s true of so much about the future of parking. Indeed, much of what proponents predict for autonomous vehicles remains speculative at best.
At the recent transportation conference in Southfield, sponsored by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, Richard Wallace, director of transportation analysis at the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Michigan, predicted that most self-driving cars will remain privately owned, as cars are today. But then Robert Feldmaier, director of the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology at Macomb Community College, predicted the opposite, saying most autonomous vehicles will operate as fleets owned by services, rather than individuals.
Will cars drive more miles or fewer once autonomous vehicles arrive? You can find predictions that hold either view. Will fully self-driving cars arrive in two years or 20? Analysts can make a case for both timetables.
So it’s reasonable to hold off on celebrating the end to parking’s hold on urban design. Parking may represent a vast waste — by some estimates, most cars are parked 95% of the time — but let’s not forget that people get possessive about their parking spaces as with few other things.
As the great mid-20th Century architecture critic Lewis Mumford once observed, “The current American way of life is founded not just on motor transportation but on the religion of the motorcar, and the sacrifices that people are prepared to make for this religion stand outside the realm of rational criticism.”
©2017 the Detroit Free Press Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.