Choosing How to Use Our Land

Author: Robert Fischer, GTiMA President | Date: February 06, 2017

Next time you’re heading out of a big shopping center or a mall, scanning the endless sea of cars and trying to remember where you parked, take a moment to picture something completely different: a narrow drop-off/pick up lane, and beyond it, a tranquil, leafy park.

For now, you’re stuck with the parking lot. But that could change – this is a story about how we, as a community, choose to use our land.

A 2014 study of six cities conducted by UConn, in partnership with the State Smart Transportation Initiative, showed that “when measuring the amount of space given to parking … tax revenues for that real estate tend to be much lower than for other types of development.”

There’s one simple reason for that. Each and every parking spot in a city is taking up space that otherwise could be occupied by business, homes, schools. The study puts this in staggering economic terms. In Hartford, Conn., whose zeal for parking lot growth is about on par with the average American city, every individual parking space represents $1,200 lost yearly in potential tax revenue.

The total cost of parking spaces to Hartford? $50 million per year. This in a city where all downtown real estate brings in $75 million in municipal revenues. Imagine what cities would be able to do with an infusion of 66% extra revenue, if only all those parking spaces weren’t necessary.

Making matters worse, car-dependent communities devote more land to parking than you might expect. A 2007 Purdue study found that “the total area devoted to parking in a midsize Midwestern county … outnumbered resident drivers 3-to-1.” That’s right — in an average county, for every car, whether it’s on the road or not, there are three parking spots out there waiting for it. A Planetizen analysis of the Purdue study, among other studies, points out that “a city must devote between 2,000 and 4,000 square feet per automobile.”

When that’s all tallied up, Planitzen writer Todd Litman says, land used for parking “exceeds the amount of land devoted to housing per capita for moderate to high development densities … and is far more land than most urban neighborhoods devote to public parks.”

Of course, if we slashed the amount of land devoted to parking in cities, we’d simply be creating massive congestion problems as people circled blocks looking for somewhere to park. The surprising amount of waste imposed by parking lots is one of many burdens on society imposed by car culture.

And this is yet another externality that AVs promise to offset. With the advent of AV tech, and its steady evolution over the next decade or two, the need for parking lots will decrease dramatically. Experts agree that AVs will eventually be safe enough to be trusted to park themselves in designated lots — in much tighter confines, without the need for people to enter or exit their cars upon parking — a few miles outside of a city after dropping you off at an area close to the entrance of the mall. When you’re ready to leave, you’d simply summon it with your smartphone and it would dutifully return to carry you to your next destination.

This advance couldn’t come at a more opportune time. The UN recently estimated that by 2050, an additional 2.5 billion people will be living in urban centers across the globe. Under the current circumstances, if just one billion of those people drive a car, that would necessitate three billion new parking spaces. This is obviously untenable, especially considering cities will need to add housing and infrastructure to fit all the newcomers.

So while hunting for your car in a gigantic parking lot in a shopping mall is annoying and visually unappealing, it’s just a tiny piece of a mounting global emergency. Luckily for us, the solution — to this, along with other crises imposed by car culture — is a top priority of tech researchers and car manufacturers across the globe. If AV tech is rolled out safely and responsibly, this sprawling predicament will soon become a thing of the past.

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