autonomous vehicles

Just two months ago, we wrote about how Autonomous Vehicles and Ride Sharing Will Reshape Our Buildings, Our Cities, and Our Lives. We explained that “[w]hile current developments require parking space to accommodate commuters, the future might make these spaces obsolete.” Chicago is experiencing that on a grand scale with the loss of surface parking lots, a staple of the city, especially in the business center, the Loop, and the areas into which that business center has expanded, River North, River West, West Loop, South Loop, Gold Coast, etc. (Chicago loves to carve as many marketable neighborhood names as possible into a small area).

As Ryan Ori of the Chicago Tribune reported, developers in the city are gobbling up surface parking lots and turning them into high rises. The simple fact of the matter is that the surface parking lots, which are available publicly to anyone willing to pay the hourly, daily or monthly fee, are not as profitable as they once were. People are driving less.  Ride sharing, Uber, Lyft, and the like have all resulted in less need for parking in urban centers. Millennials are buying fewer cars than prior generations.   Even if in the short term, car sales may grow, the long term trend is that in urban centers, fewer people will own cars.  Thus, less surface parking, or public parking will be necessary. It may not seem too much of a shock that 1,000 foot high rises will make more money than surface parking lots, but surface parking has been a staple of Chicago for decades.  Companies have done very well owning multiple lots. With revenue down as much as 30 percent though, these lots are no longer worth as much as simply selling and developing the land.

So, how are all these people getting around?  They always could take taxis – it is not like there were no car options available that did not involve owning your own car.   They do not seem to be taking public transportation.  As recently as the third quarter of 2017, the American Public Transportation Association estimated that overall use of public transit was down 3.11 percent for the year.  Even just in Chicago, according to the same report, commuter rail use was down 1.42 percent and bus ridership was down 4.30 percent.  Is everyone getting into some sort of ride sharing? Studying the data turns out to be a challenge.  Less parking does not necessarily mean fewer cars, as New York has discovered. On report claimed that traffic in New York, always notoriously so bad that many locals do not own cars, had slowed by 12 percent thanks to ride sharing.

Cities could find themselves truly challenged. They need less parking, but there are more cars.  Those cars have to go somewhere. When in use, they need streets. When not in use, they need parking. Where are they going to be kept, and how?  How are they going to be managed? These are questions that must be answered now because cities are planned now, but for the future. Some have posited that the future is a world where car ownership dwindles and we all share utilitarian fully autonomous vehicles.  Presume that future is true.  When will it happen?  2030, 2040, 2050?  Cities are being designed now for the mid-21st Century and planners must decide where to build roads and how to build those roads (and parking, and high rises, and other transportation). If they decide wrong, those cities will not be equipped to deliver the transportation necessary for their ever growing populations.