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Why high-tech parking lots for autonomous cars may change urban planning

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With self-driving technology in play, these under-appreciated piece of infrastructure could play a key role in a more efficient urban future

With the advent of autonomous car technology expected to radically reshape our commutes and roadways, the fate of the lowly parking garage may not seem all that exciting. Honestly, unless you're circling downtown desperate for a place to park, how often is a parking garage all that exciting? But planners and architects believe the future of these often unremarkable parts of busy downtown neighborhoods will be much more interesting with the advent of improved autonomous driving technology. New self-parking systems mean more space and more adaptive structures, but only if planners, architects, and designers start thinking ahead.

Outside of Nashville, Tennessee, an office-park and mixed-use under development called Brentwood will have subterranean facilities that takes advantage of forthcoming technologies to repurpose valuable above-ground space and leave a smaller footprint. Brian Wright, founding Principal of Town Planning & Urban Design Collaborative, the company handling the Nashville project, told Car & Driver that planning for a new kind of garage was "a paradigm shift."

Smarter cars mean smaller spaces, he says, and therefore less development costs associated with parking. As technology advances and more cities begin to adapt, the shift may lead more and more municipalities to begin to figure out how to repurpose empty floors of parking garages, or start moving garages to the edge of town (since cars will eventually be able to valet themselves).

The bigger philosophical shift, that a surfeit of close and convenient parking spaces isn't necessary for a successful downtown district, could inspire huge shifts in how bigger developments are zoned and laid out. Will this smarter, more efficient type of parking shifts spaces for cars to the edge of pedestrian friendly zones, and make it easier to create dense, walkable spaces? Will smarter parking open up roadways and make more room for cyclists and pedestrians?

Autonomous Parking Lot Two
These renderings show how future driving technology may reshape parking garages.
Arrowstreet Inc.

The Brentwood development isn’t the only place where designers and local government officials see a big advantage, and potential windfall, in pursuing the next generation of parking garages. Amy Korte, principal designer at Boston-based architectural firm Arrowstreet, told Boston.com that she envisions a future where self-navigating cars need much less space to park, allowing planners to cut 4 inches off either side of a traditional space (21 square feet in total). That means vehicular storage spaces can be reactivated. Experts at her firm estimate that the rise in driverless vehicles, as well as the wider adoption of sharing services such as Zipcar, will reduce the overall demand for parking will decline by 5.7 billion square meters (61 billion square feet) by 2035

"We can transform those floors into residential, hotel, office and retail uses," she told Boston.com. "There are a number of uses that will make our cities better."

Some researchers are still skeptical we'll need parking spaces at all after driverless systems mature.

"The biggest impact is going to be on parking. We aren’t going to need it, definitely not in the places we have it now," Alain L. Kornhauser, a researcher in autonomous vehicles at Princeton University, told Curbed earlier this year. "Having parking wedded or close to where people spend time, that’s going to be a thing of the past. If I go to a football game, my car doesn’t need to stay with me. If I’m at the office, it doesn’t need to be there. The current shopping centre with the sea of parking around it, that’s dead."

Since that future may still be a ways off, testing and development of these garages is already taking place. In Somerville, Massachusetts, at Assembly Row, a development at a former brownfield site near the Mystic River, planners seeks to reduce the space allocated to parking by tapping the potential of self-driving technology. The city of Somerville, along with Audi’s Urban Future Initiative and the Federal Realty Investment Trust, are working on a garage design that could cut needed parking space by 62 percent, which Audi estimates could save $100 million over the course of the project’s completion.

To accomplish their goals, the city will need to revisit zoning laws and parking requirements. With the growth in transit-oriented development, and many mayors fighting to reduce congestion, it seems like a given that more cities will adapt this to reactivate (and make more money) off prime downtown real estate. But this may be where smart planning and development incentives are needed; increasing efficiency in this field means a lot of empty space, and farsighted planning will be needed to ensure the potential of efficient parking doesn’t end up being a mix of empty lots and empty promises.