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Why valet parking is the future of smarter urban transit

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Before driverless cars rule the roads, more efficient, effortless curb management and parking can make space on our streets


The valet industry was once such a goldmine for parking attendants that rival companies would bid for the right to operate at exclusive nightclubs and restaurants. For today’s valet parkers, much of the glamour is fading fast, thanks in large part to technological change.

Due to the growth of Uber and Lyft, businesses have become less dependent on the service. Industry expert Casey Wagner sees app-based mobility services taking a “big bite” out of valet services, while a San Diego Union-Tribune report found that Ace Parking, a giant in the local parking industry, has seen a drop of 50 percent and 25 percent for valet traffic to nightclubs and restaurants, respectively. And this is before automated vehicles and the driverless revolution arrive—which will, many predict, curtail or even eliminate the need for parking spots at all.

Valet, it seems, might as well just toss the keys over to Silicon Valley and head inside for a drink.

A quick statistical rundown of the country’s parking capacity demonstrates one of the greatest inefficiencies in our transportation system—500 million parking spaces for 326 million citizens spread across 3.5 million square miles of parking infrastructure, an area the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Currently, an estimated 30 percent of traffic congestion every year comes from drivers simply searching for one of these spots.

Valets at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Laguna Beach, California in 1998.
UIG via Getty Images

Valet offers the most extreme example of the spatial problem that has shaped American cities—a service created by inequalities of supply and demand dictated by popular entertainment spots. Valet allows a large number of cars to access the entrance while giving their passengers the shortest possible distance from vehicle to destination, fitting a large number of people in a small, dense space, and getting them from home to wherever they need to go and back again.

That’s why the dream of eliminating parking altogether, aided by quickly developing autonomous vehicle technology, or automating the process of moving cars to temporary parking, has become so tantalizing. Much like valet services, fleets of vehicles can drop us off, disappear into the night, and pick us up whenever we’re done.

But a society that depends on cars isn’t going to change overnight. Maybe this techno-utopianism, and talk about eliminating private car ownership is getting too far ahead of the game. A policy brief by the Institute of Transportation Studies at University of California at Davis, argues that unless self-driving tech is introduced as part of a convergence of three new technologies—automation, electrification, and shared mobility—the technology has the potential create a whole new wave of automobile-induced sprawl.

Recent industry forecasts from Global Parking Management Market suggest the entire parking industry, including valet and self-service garages, is estimated to grow from $3 billion in 2016 to $5 billion by 2021, as an increase in the number of vehicles and rapid urbanization create even more parking problems.

Perhaps the solution is updating valet for the 21st century.

Imagine a future that replaces humans hustling to unload cars in front of restaurants with a single digital communications protocol between cars, cities, and parking spaces, which would allow cars to easily find spaces and the most efficient routes. Developing a smart, efficient, and automated valet system, part of larger efforts to digitize the curb, could help reduce traffic, utilize more space, and yes, lead to the elimination of a sizable chunk of asphalt dedicated to cars.

“Parking has been talked about as something that’s going away,” says Mark Lawrence, CEO of SpotHero, a parking app. “But what we’re really looking at is the death of parking that’s self-serving. I think a lot of the street parking will go away and be replaced with these new mobility solutions. Smarter, more efficient parking is at the center of future mobility, and important for cities to be thinking about.”

Parking’s swampy origins, and midcentury boom

While it’s often derided as an ugly but necessary use of space, parking, and the infrastructure behind it, actually comes from an attempt to improve the urban landscape.

According to Michele Richmond’s article “The Etymology of Parking,” in 1870, the nation’s capital wanted to commission a beautifying campaign to make the streets better resemble those of Paris. In response, the United States Congress passed a law authorizing the city to set aside up to 50 percent of the width of streets to support “parks for trees and walks.” This “parking,” which ran through the middle and along the sides of D.C. streets, would be rolled out across the city, with 70,000 trees planted in the following decade.

At the dawn of the Motor Age in the 20th century, when cars became more central to city transportation, this “parking” would be eliminated to make room for automobiles. Trees that once served as shade, as well as convenient spots to tie-up a horse-drawn conveyance, would be cut down, pulled out, and transformed into space that fulfilled the modern definition of the term.

As car ownership became more common and continued to grow—23 million cars circled American roads by 1929—space was at a premium in dense urban centers. That led to the creation of parking garages in the ‘20s, multilevel spaces that, in the beginning, contained car elevators and were staffed with professional attendants who parked every vehicle. According to Sarah Leavitt, who curated the exhibit “House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage,” at the National Building Museum, some even had babysitting services.

The growth of parking garages and other infrastructure continued in earnest in the 1950s, enabling new suburban residents to comfortably drive into and out of downtown shopping and job centers and quickly return home.

This is when valet service also started to truly take off. After taking over parking concessions from his father at Lawry’s Prime Rib in Beverly Hills, Herb Citrin began building an empire in Los Angeles, establishing his Valet Parking Services and team of smartly uniformed attendants as the ones big spenders and celebrities tossed their keys to every night.

A WWII veteran who transformed valet parking from a casual mom-and-pop concern into an industry, Citrin helped popularize a service in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when LA’s convergence of ostentatious cars and celebrity nightlife gave the mundane job of ferrying vehicles a more exciting veneer.

“One night Frank Sinatra walked out of the Peninsula Hotel and asked a parking attendant, ‘What was the biggest tip you ever got?’” Citrin told the Los Angeles Times. “When he said, ‘$100, Mr. Sinatra,’ the singer handed him $200, and then asked, ‘Who gave you the $100 tip?’ The attendant replied: ‘It was you, Mr. Sinatra.’”

The advent of self-parking lots, and the expansion of parking minimums, zoning codes that asked developers to include a set number of parking spots for businesses and residential projects, only exacerbated the spread of parking spots and spaces. In expensive, car-centric cities like Los Angeles, which is currently adding new cars at a rate four times higher than it did just decades ago, roughly 13 percent of all land is devoted to space to store cars.

Elmer Nolasco, a valet driver with Coast Parking, hands a parking stub to an employee who just arrived at American Apparel’s factory in downtown Los Angeles in June of 2013.
LA Times via Getty Images

How curb management can redefine our relationship with parking

Parking, while not necessarily in retreat, has become less entrenched, viewed as more expendable, in some places, than it has been in decades. Between the rise of safe streets advocacy, urban infill projects, downtown development, and tactical urbanist interventions, many developers and planners see better uses for urban real estate than places to park cars.

Of course, technology has taken its toll. Ride sharing and ride hailing is becoming an alternative to owning a private car, thanks to Uber and Lyft, leading to fewer young adults owning personal automobiles.

But many see a future in parking, especially in rebranding the service as part of curb management, an emerging catch-all term for digital means of managing the streetscape. Increasingly, cities find streets and sidewalks flush with new transit options and mobility technology, including dockless bikes and scooters, and navigating the increase in traffic from ridehailing as well as the increase in urban freight deliveries.

One proposed solution, a set of rules governing access to the curb, and infrastructure allowing for more multimodal transit options, can grow out of better data and information about how these important slivers of urban real estate work. Increasingly, cities and startups, whether its LA’s Code the Curb initiative, digital firms such as Remix, or the Shared Street Initiative to create common standards for mapping roadways, have started sketching out the online blueprints for cities to understand and better utilize their streets.


From this digital backbone, technology firms and existing parking companies can create what’s best described as a next-generation valet service. Digital management of parking spaces would eliminate the wasted time and emissions that come from circling for a spot, and utilize existing inventory better, helping cities better profit off existing spaces, and even reducing the need for parking expansion. The increase in drop-off traffic from Uber or Lyft can be steered and directed towards less busy side streeta; a pilot project testing this idea is already in the works in San Francisco. These efficiency gains may even allow cities to replace on-street parking space with bike lanes, pedestrian areas, or foliage.

A startup garage, but for better parking

Parking is going to be a necessary evil for the foreseeable future, but there are efforts to make it smarter and more sustainable. Parking garages are already being designed in ways that presage a new, more efficient parking industry. New structures, such as the Gensler-designed 84.51 Centre in Cincinnati, have been made to be convertible to different uses, such as office space, when the need for parking space decreases. The city of Somerville, Massachusetts is collaborating with Audi’s Urban Future Initiative and the Federal Realty Investment Trust on a garage design that could cut needed parking space by more than 60 percent. Audi estimates the design, storing cars in an efficient, tight grid instead of rows with space for humans to maneuver, could save $100 million once it’s finished.

A recent study by University of Toronto researchers found that automated technology could increase the capacity of parking lots and garages by 62 percent.

“Cars, especially autonomous cars, need to rest, charge, clean,” says Lawrence. “Lots of people say, well, autonomous cars will simply drop us off then go to the outskirts and wait. Where is that? How will, say, two million vehicles go to the edge of Los Angeles, and then come back to where they’re needed?”

These renderings show how future driving technology may reshape parking garages.
Arrowstreet Inc.

In Nashville, Tennessee, a development called Brentwood plans to include a subterranean garage to take advantage of improvements in autonomous parking technology to use less space and free up valuable above-ground real estate. Brian Wright, founding principal of Town Planning & Urban Design Collaborative, the company handling the project, told Car & Driver that planning for a new kind of garage was “a paradigm shift.” Carmakers have already seen the value in this type of technology, with numerous parking assistant technologies deployed or in development. Mercedes-Benz and Bosch even has a trial smart parking garage program in the works in Stuttgart, Germany.

This philosophical shift—an overabundance of parking to smarter parking that takes up less valuable real estate—could inspire significant changes in how urban real estate is developed and used. More room would be available for denser, more walkable neighborhoods, and transit-oriented development would be even more profitable with less need to devote space to parking.

To reach their full potential, these garages need smart and autonomous technology to help park cars. Combine this technology with electric vehicle charging and garages will be able to serve more cars, in more sustainable ways, utilizing less space. Garages with automated valet will provide some of the highest utilization possible for parking spaces. We’ll likely see driverless tech in a controlled environment like a parking facility well before it hits the open road.

Parking technology has a mixed track record. Startups such as Luxe, which raised $75 million for an on-demand human valet services, crashed and burned last year, and a recent Forbes article said that “on-demand parking has so far been a great business only if your goal was to lose a lot of money very quickly.”

It’s hard to look ahead and forecast when the mobility market is changing so quickly. Which cities were planning for dockless electric scooters 12 months ago? But in a nation with an estimated 260 million registered cars, we need to admit that automobiles will be part of the solution, or problem, for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps a fleet of more high-tech, efficient, and autonomous valet services can curb emissions, support a more efficient and environmentally friendly transit system, and help move cities in the right direction.