Monday, March 21, 2016

Are we ready for a world where parking requirements decrease by 80%?

Density and car ownership are often at odds. We know density does great things for cities. The concentration of people, businesses and transportation all play a powerful role in economic growth. Yet cars - and the parking they require - undermine that growth every day in a variety of ways. Cars create the need for streets, parking lots, and circulation that do little to enhance the experience of urban living. As a society we further exacerbate that problem by requiring more parking through zoning than we might need if alternative transportation options were more readily available. The issue hit home for me the other day someone asked me how often I drive my car (I live in a very dense, walk able urban community in Queens, NY). I thought about it quickly and realized I only drive  about 2-3 times a month, and mostly to run errands, go grocery shopping at the local warehouse club, or visit family outside the City. The remainder of that time, my car sits unused in an on-street parking spot taking up valuable space in the urban environment.

So what happens when we acknowledge that cars are highly underutilized commodities that are parked 95% of the time? Are there solutions out there that would offer people the convenience of car ownership without the societal burden created by the need for parking?
Imagine yourself driving around in one of these cute BMWs.
This could be the future of  downtown car ownership. 
BMW is among those testing out new solutions through their DriveNow program. The program is already functional in a few European cities. And while the San Francisco program was stalled owing in part to an unfriendly regulatory environment, they are actively looking to expand in the New York market. The concept is this - what if you had access to a fleet of cars that were parked in your building? Assume these cars were at your disposal whenever you wanted - to pick up groceries, visit a friend, go on a day trip somewhere. Studies suggest that one car share vehicle displaces between 10 - 15 owned vehicles. This means that instead of parking, we could build more housing, support more retail, and develop more public space, all of which would make urban environments even more attractive places to live and work. Just think, instead of two lanes of parking, you could have just one lane parking, which would allow for wider sidewalks with more landscaping and amenities like outdoor dining, not to mention provide an additional buffer between the pedestrians and traffic. The impact on our downtown's would be nothing short of revolutionary. And what if these cars were electric cars - which is the BMW model? We could further improve air quality too. Win, win!

However, this solution is not without it's challenges. As they say, the devil is in the details. Part of the problem is that at peak times everyone wants to use the car (say Saturday afternoon), so you need the right volume of car share vehicles to make this work. There are many entrants in this market that are actively working to figure out these details. Besides BMW these include car2go and Enterprise.

For those of us working on downtown issues, we should prepare ourselves for the impact because we will among the first to experience these changes. Car sharing makes the most sense, of course, in dense, pedestrian friendly communities like the ones we serve. New residential development in urban places will provide downtown practitioners some of the earliest opportunities to partner with car share providers. Now the question is, will our cities be prepared with the right regulatory requirements and flexibility to allow for these new technologies? Will banks underwrite loans for buildings with reduced parking? And will retailers accept lower parking requirements when they have little experience with these new models? Clearly, these chapters remain to be written.

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