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Is the bell tolling for the parked car?

Laura Ingalls Wilder traveling in the covered wagon - Image Source:
Laura Ingalls Wilder traveling in the covered wagon – Image Source:
When our children are in the third grade we read the Little House series of books with them, in part to acquaint them with more challenging reading materials but also to teach them about our pioneering days as a country as we expanded westward. Most people are familiar with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story of how she crossed the country in a covered wagon with Pa and her family in the 1860s and 1870s.

Few realize that in her lifetime Wilder saw a huge industrial and technological leap forward. In 1954, Wilder flew on a plane to visit her daughter. The same girl who knew the hardship of the covered wagon also flew on an airplane. That story is a parable about fast-changing technologies and how they catch us by surprise and upend conventional thinking.

There are many examples of this in recent times: In 1977, the home computer was invented and in less than two decades, it became a ubiquitous part of the developed world’s workplaces and homes. In 1991, the mobile phone (then the heavy bag phone) was introduced for mass-market consumption. It got progressively smaller, lighter, and more powerful until the introduction of the Apple iPhone in 2007 radically altered the mobile computing landscape.

So it is with the way automobiles operated in the city – not just in how they move, but how they stand still. How we park our cars has by far the biggest impact on the urban form of the places where we live. Billions of dollars of infrastructure are built every year through both public and private subsidies to store our cars. These surface lots, parking decks, garages, and on-street spaces take up a massive amount of our built environment – nearly 30% in some cities.

We finance parking facilities with bonds and mortgages that get repaid over 20 years or more. But impending changes in transportation patters mean that a parking deck built in the urban core today may be functionally obsolete long before it’s paid off. Why? A “mobility convergence” is rapidly approaching in North America and Europe, driven by declining desire for car ownership, the imminent arrival of self-driving cars, and a flood of mobile apps for sharing vehicle capacity. It’s entirely conceivable that the owner of a parking deck financed with a 20-year mortgage in 2015 will be making debt-service payments in 2025 on a facility using less than 25% of its available capacity.

To some, this will be unthinkable, just as airplanes were to Laura Ingalls Wilder in her covered wagon. But let’s look at recent decades for some lessons.

Beginning in 1903 with the introduction of the Ford Model A, Henry Ford and his peers replaced the horse and carriage with the automobile, thus revolutionizing not only how far we could travel but also the infrastructure required to support that travel. In 1954, President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act. The United States institutionalized (and heavily subsidized) Ford’s leap forward with the construction of a vast network of streets and highways designed to accommodate that single technology.

Then, in the past decade a series of transformational changes began to occur that will lead to the next big leap forward – the decoupling of mobility from car ownership and operation, and this will alter the spatial arrangement of our cities. Three forces, one demographic and two technological are quickly combining to bring what will be the most important, most far-reaching change to our urban society, affecting not only its physical form but its financial structure as well.

Millennials Don't Care About Owning Cars, And Car Makers Can't Figure Out Why - Image Source: Fast Company Exist  (
Millennials Don’t Care About Owning Cars, And Car Makers Can’t Figure Out Why – Image Source: Fast Company Exist
This transformation started with a generation raised by the Baby Boomers, the wealthiest, most privileged generation our society has known. In spite of the obvious trend of their parents, and generations before them, the Boomers’ children began to eschew the rite of passage for every teenager – the driver’s license. For the first time in the history of automobile mobility, the rate of driver’s licenses amongst the population actually began to decrease, led by the so-called Millennials, who collectively have spent more time in a car than any generation of children in history. The idea of car ownership as a hallmark of success is likely coming to an end.

Google's Self-Driving Car - Image Source: Travis Wise on Flikr
Google’s Self-Driving Car
Riding in parallel with this societal change has been the evolution of the autonomous vehicle. Led by technology-based corporations whose likely motivation is to increase the number of hours we consume content online, the driverless car or at least its comforts have been the promise of car manufacturers for decades. Science fiction predicted long ago that we would be able to step into a personal vehicle, kick back and relax while a computer navigated the streets. Today, with a massive investment in the technology plus the legal structure necessary to support such a vision, Google’s Self-Driving Car Project has logged more than a million miles of accident-free transport over the past few years, navigating the streets of Mountain View, CA using a sophisticated combination of Lidar remote sensing hardware and navigation software.

Uber's iPhone app - Image Source:
Uber’s iPhone app – Image Source:
The third force, a combination of entrepreneurship fueled by social media, has created a rapidly emerging market for sharing assets. Like Airbnb, which liberated hundreds of thousands of empty bedrooms to create extra income, lower cost and often more interesting ways to travel, companies like Uber, Lyft, ZipCar, and Enterprise CarShare have taken an underutilized resource, the personal automobile, and created a software algorithm to match up empty seats in a car with potential riders through both on-demand and subscription services. Our cars, on average, spend almost 96% of their existence doing absolutely nothing but taking up space. And when we do use them, they often travel with 50-75% excess capacity. These ride sharing services have made it easier and often more enjoyable to live without a personal vehicle. More importantly, they have figured out a way to better utilize the excess capacity of our collective mobility system.

These three forces – diminished desire for car ownership and operation, improved technology for riding autonomously, and algorithms to maximize the capacity in our mobility network – presage radical changes in our mobility and urban form. When this convergence is complete, we will be able to summon an autonomous vehicle with our phone, watch, or other wearable (or perhaps implanted) device and be transported to our destination cheaply and safely.

The resulting efficiencies are staggering. By some estimates, autonomous vehicles, with their constant speeds and ability to reduce the gaps between vehicles, can increase the capacity of our current highway system by 370%, reduce the total number of vehicles needed by 80%, reduce the demand for parking spaces by 80%, and virtually eliminate the need to park a vehicle near your home, workplace, or store.

This marks perhaps the most disruptive leap forward that urban America has seen since the automobile replaced the horse as the primary means of transportation. In his book, Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation, Tony Seba has documented these trends and projected that “exponentially improving technologies such as solar, electric vehicles, and autonomous (self-driving) cars will disrupt and radically change the energy and transportation industries as we know it (sic). The same Silicon Valley ecosystem that created bit-based technologies that have disrupted atom-based industries is now creating bit- and electron-based technologies that will disrupt atom-based energy industries.”

“Clean Disruption” projections (based on technology cost curves, plus innovations in business and product models) suggest that by 2030:

  • Most new mass-market vehicles will be electric.
  • A big percentage of these vehicles will be autonomous or semi-autonomous.
  • The car market as we know it today will likely shrink by 80%.
  • Gasoline will become obsolete as a mainstream fuel.
  • New highways will hardly be needed.
  • Up to 80% of parking spaces won’t be needed.
  • Individual car ownership will diminish to a fraction of what it is now, or simply become a niche market.
  • The car insurance industry will need radically different models of operation. The taxi industry will be obsolete.

Foreshadowing these changes, Uber and Lyft have virtually dismantled the taxi system in several cities in just a few short years, and digital technologies are radially reshaping our communications and personal relationships in many fields. None of these, however, has the enormous infrastructure footprint of the parked car. Changing this will not be easy.

People and jobs have now returned to the center cities but not without bringing with them their voracious appetite for parked cars. The benefit of the walkable downtown should be to provide choices in mobility, shunning the need to replicate the parking standards of suburban business parks. And yet, the institutions supporting the automobile remain as wedded as ever to the massive infrastructure necessary to park a vehicle for more than 95% of each day.

We sit today in the crosshairs of two transformative shifts. The first is the welcome return of jobs and housing to our downtowns. Corporate America is discovering the power of place in attracting and retaining the very best people for their organizations, and a variety of demographic groups once again call the city their home. The second is the transition of the dominant form of transportation – the largely single-occupant automobile – to an autonomous, on-demand service that will likely be divorced from vehicle ownership.

So, how do we make the transition?

Step one: Amend (and preferably eliminate) the required minimum parking standards for private development enforced by local government zoning codes. The minimum parking requirements embedded in zoning codes usually mimic suburban standards established decades ago. They are artificially high at best and bear little relationship with the realities of the marketplace. In ten years, parking supply will be well above capacity because of the coming disruption, so if we are truly “planning” we should acknowledge this and get out of the way.

Step two: Eliminate any barriers to autonomous vehicles and car-sharing services. Cities across the country have already begun adaptation, with positive outcomes. The cities that don’t adapt will be the dinosaurs of the next age.

Step three: End of the provision of public parking by government. This is perhaps the most difficult provision of the three and this transition will likely vary from city to city depending on their maturity. New York, Chicago, and San Francisco may be close to this point already whereas Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville will necessarily need to trail – perhaps by a decade or more. Many cities have become addicted to providing parking paid for by the taxpayers using 10 or 20 year bonds. Some are backed by good-faith estimates of parking revenue streams or incremental increases in area tax receipts whereas others are simply outright commitments of public resources. Parking revenue models will likely begin to fail in some cities within a decade and the demands on government resources will only continue to increase. From the repair of infrastructure to the expansion of transit to the provision of affordable housing, cities already juggle many urgent needs; removing one that’s outlived its usefulness represents smart governance. To tie up precious resources for 20 years or more on an investment that may plummet in value is a great risk for precious public funds.

Unlike Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had to live a lifetime to move from the covered wagon to the airplane, we are likely to see this disruption of our urban infrastructure in less than a generation. Car manufacturers will resist, insurance companies will resist, the lawyers will resist, and those stuck in the mindset of cheap, available parking for cars will resist.

But despite that, my children – the youngest of whom are the same age as Wilder was when she left the big woods – may very well never need a driver’s license, much less a car.  And, in the coming years, we may just build the last parking garage that we will see through to the end of its payments.

Why the debate about widening I-77 in Charlotte is not answering the right question

Image Credit:
Image Credit:
As an urban planner with a national practice I am frequently asked by friends and colleagues for an opinion on the Interstate 77 toll lane discussion. I’ve been all across the country this past year in areas that were either growing fast or dying slowly. So when I return home to see how a seemingly conservative group of advocates demand spending more than a half billion dollars on a single-purpose facility, I not only wonder if that is the answer, but I wonder whether anyone is asking the right question.

The question seems to be only this: How fast can we widen I-77? And the foregone conclusion to solving all our transportation woes from uptown Charlotte to Statesville is to run out to the highway store, after eating our way through the holiday season, and buy a pair of fat pants and a bigger belt.

Instead, the question should be: How do we facilitate more predictable and reliable mobility, north to south? And, assuming that a half-billion dollars were miraculously sitting on the table to spend, why would we dump it into one project?

Folks, I hate to break it to you, but there is no highway wide enough to accommodate growth’s demands. Transportation researchers have already proven that the inconvenient truth of “induced demand” will sap any capacity in any additional lanes within a generation. Induced demand is a well-proven, if counterintuitive, result. Highway widening will increase demand (congestion) for the capacity rather than relieve it.

Very simply, for some short period of time, homebuyers will be lulled into a false sense of smooth sailing until sometime in the near future the new road capacity fills back up.  The 23-lane, Interstate 10 corridor in Houston, which combines free lanes (a lot of them) and managed (toll) lanes (a lot of them, too), saw total commute times (morning and evening) increase by more than 32 minutes from 2011 to today.

Now, Houston is talking about a $6 billion “improvement” to the Interstate 45 corridor – which carries roughly double the traffic I-77 sees each day – to “relieve congestion.”

Are we Houston? Not yet. But with a growth projection that our metropolitan area will double in population in the next 40 years, we’ll be Houston before we know it.

So, when asked – “Do I support the toll lanes?” – my response is yes, but it’s but one of many solutions needed.

The lesson from Texas  – a hyperconservative, pro-property rights state, where managed lanes are now everywhere – is that adding free lanes is the functional equivalent of throwing money down a rat hole. At least with toll lanes, they can manage the trip through demand-based pricing strategies that keep cars and their occupants flowing. In that regard, that is the only type of new freeway lane that makes any sense in Charlotte. To offer additional free lanes – lanes  that our already heavily subsidized state Department of Transportation cannot afford – would simply open new land for development farther out, causing it to fill with the aforementioned “induced demand.” Has Interstate 485 really relieved congestion? Have you been around the southwestern leg with its 6+ lanes at 6 pm lately?

We simply need more choices, and choices not predicated on accommodating single-occupancy vehicles on single-purpose freeways. Until we all move over to Smart Car-sized autonomous cars, freeways are a lost cause for improving travel times. Instead, we need to look at providing more choices in our corridors – choices in both the network and the mode.

The Charlotte region’s suburban development pattern has failed to provide choice to our community. Its heavy reliance on dendritic neighborhood patterns and poorly connected thoroughfares means we have no traffic on the cul-de-sac while we have terrible traffic on the periphery. Look at a congestion map of Mecklenburg County. The worst congestion begins about 15 miles from the center city, where the number of choices in the street network decreases dramatically. While long-haul commuters won’t necessarily take the smaller streets to travel 30 miles from office to home, folks who simply need to take their children to soccer practice at 5:30 p.m. (my family included) have few choices for our short trips. Two two-lane roads handle more traffic than one four-lane road. How many two-lane roads, north to south, can we build for a half a billion dollars?

After all, isn’t choice a good thing? As Americans, we like many choices when we go to Target to buy a vacuum cleaner. Have you seen the dog food aisle at Harris Teeter lately? Yet, for the single piece of infrastructure that has the greatest impact on our productivity, our air quality, and our economic competitiveness, we have few choices.

This leads me to the elephant in the room –transit. Dedicated-corridor transit is the only mobility solution that can ensure consistent travel times from point to point regardless of demand. If the cars fill up, we can simply add more cars. Having traveled to Dallas this spring, I saw how a 20-year investment in transit has paid off for the Metroplex. With 90 miles of light rail infrastructure and 62 stations, the DART system accommodates nearly 100,000 passenger trips every day. That’s about the same volume as I-77 carries today. Most important, the system, the largest light rail system in the country (again, in Texas), has ensured that Dallas can remain competitive in the marketplace for jobs. State Farm is finishing construction of a $1.5 billion, 2 million square-foot office space within a stone’s throw of the light rail station in the northern suburb of Richardson. They are doing the same for their operations in Atlanta and Tempe, Ariz. Why? Because it gives their employees more reliable choices to get to the office. Anyone know what the annual property taxes are on $1.5 billion?

Until the Charlotte region and our partners in Raleigh and Washington get serious about funding transit, we are going to remain a community with few choices. And so long as we keep providing a monoculture of answers to the wrong questions, we will continue to see congestion increase.

If I could wave a magic wand and spend a half-billion dollars in the north corridor between Charlotte and southern Iredell County, I would build a commuter rail system (where fares would be less than half of the toll lanes) from Charlotte to Mooresville and have money left over to construct another north-south thoroughfare.

Instead, I’m just glad the public investment far less than the total, and the rest is someone else’s money. At least what is getting built will be managed to give us the hope of a predictable travel time.

We might not be trying to lose weight through diet and exercise, but at least we aren’t simply putting on our fat pants and giving up.