Self-Driving Commentary: Lot Vacant

This post belongs to a series I’m calling Self-Driving Commentary, in which I spout and ramble on whatever is rattling around in my head pertaining to self-driving cars. Enjoy!

I’ve had this article from Mother Jones titled “No Parking Here” by Clive Thompson open in a Chrome tab for a few weeks now. I think I somehow knew that it was gonna be good, and that I would need a while to digest it. Boy was I right! I thought it was going to be exclusively about how self-driving cars will affect parking in cities, but it also touches on so many other great possibilities and implications that I found myself head bowed, arm in the air, muttering “Amen, brother Clive!” more than a few times. I couldn’t use a highlighter so I had to make a notes.txt file to hold the twenty-two fantastic nuggets of commentary fodder I pulled from the article. Gems like:

The average automobile spends 95 percent of its time sitting in place.

…we have roughly four times more parking spaces than vehicles. If you totaled up all the area devoted to parking, it’d be roughly 6,500 square miles, bigger than Connecticut.

Studies have found that anywhere from about 30 to 60 percent of the cars you see driving around a downtown core are just circling, looking for an open space to claim.

An IBM survey found that worldwide, urban drivers spend an average of 20 minutes per trip looking for parking

The upshot, Kockelman figures, is that if you shifted the entire city to autonomous cars, it would need a staggering 90 percent less parking than it needs today

Some urban thinkers told me that 15 years from now, autonomous vehicles will have erased the need for up to 90 percent of our current lots.

I think that whether you subscribe to the self-driving car ownership model or the transportation-as-a-service model, we all seem to agree that it will alleviate much of our need for parking. (Unless, in some weird twist of fate, it becomes cool to have your second car, your motorcycle, and your truck hauling your Sea-Doo follow you to work and use five parking spots every day because, well, how the hell are you supposed to know at 7am what you’re going to want to do that afternoon?) The question is, what are we going to do with all of that useless asphalt and concrete? And it’s not just parking spots (and our garages and driveways at home), it’s a good amount of street real estate itself. If it’s true that (from the article)…

One study suggests a single self-driving car could replace up to 12 regular vehicles


“You could conceivably imagine a world in which you don’t need to pave as much of the roadway,” says James Anderson, a behavioral scientist at RAND who co-authored a report on autonomous cars in 2014. “If they’re driving themselves, cars could precisely put themselves on four-meter-wide bits of pavement,” leaving the rest of the road to some other purpose or surface, maybe grass. “You can imagine fairly utopian, far-off visions.”

I don’t see why we couldn’t dig up every other street downtown and turn it into biking/walking trails, parks, housing, whatever. The article says:

Take New York City, where there are roughly 102,000 public parking spaces below 60th Street—taking up roughly 18.4 million square feet, a space equal to about half of Central Park.


…on average we’ve asphalted over 31 percent of our commercial downtown cores with parking.

And yet, I’ve read more than once that a plausible consequence of our self-driving future is that people will move further away from city centers. That makes no sense to me! Just because you don’t have to pay attention to the road, you’re willing to spend more time commuting? The article cites the “Marchetti Wall,” which “observed that throughout history—going back to ancient Rome—the majority of people disliked commuting more than one hour to work.” Now, maybe if you’re able to sleep or read a book or crochet or plot your next gratuitous waste of energy from the comfort of your captain’s seat it’ll be a different story, but I’d rather sleep in my own damn bed. Is that extra thirty minutes of commute time what’s keeping the next wave of white flight at bay?

That scenario is pretty exclusive to the ownership model, too. And I’m service model guy - I think longer commutes are just going to mean more expense. Not that some country boys won’t be willing to pay, but I think either way it’ll end up cheaper to pay-per-ride than own. Unless, like the article suggests:

Others pointed out that personal ownership might well blur with fleet ownership. If someone owned a self-driving car, she might opt to make money off it by having it drive off to work for a fleet when she’s at the office.

I’ve read other versions of that scenario, but I just don’t see it happening. The extra income (hopefully enough to offset the cost of the car) might be nice, but when you find yourself the proud owner of a car full of boiled egg farts I think you might change your mind about it real fast. Yes, I know it’s just as likely you’d get a stinky Uber, but just hail another Uber and let them deal with it.

All this to say, I think the most plausible consequence of all this reclaimed asphalt is more and (thus) cheaper housing in city centers. Future generations are going to welcome diversity and value community more and more, and while there will be exceptions, by and large they’re going to want to live in city centers. Mark my words! (No go read Clive’s article, ya turkey!)