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Autonomous vehicles: throwing parking a kerb ball

Hotwire Global

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This week, The Economist published an in-depth look at the cost of parking provision, highlighting the hidden and not-so-hidden impact that providing space for parking has on cities and their inhabitants.

With more than 9,000 people in London dying prematurely each year from exposure to air pollution, there’s a credible argument that cities should be reducing parking provision to discourage private vehicle use in favour of greener options like public transport, cycling or walking. Common sense dictates that the availability of parking (especially free parking) encourages private vehicle use, a hypothesis backed up by studies on traffic and parking which refer to a phenomenon known as induced demand. The impact of encouraging vehicles into our city centres is dirtier, more congested and deadlier living spaces.

Few argue that autonomous vehicles (AVs) will offer a cleaner, cheaper and more efficient future, but the impact of AVs on parking requirements has commanded fewer column inches. This may be because reduced need for parking is not purely a function of the technology itself, rather it is a reflection of how our ideas of personal mobility will change.

Many of the benefits AVs will deliver to society depend on an anticipated reduction in car ownership as we switch to a mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) model. Driverless cars or buses will be summoned in response to a specific need, dutifully gliding off to serve their next user once they complete a trip. With today’s privately-owned cars parked for some 95% of the time, a shared, on-demand, mobility-as-a-service model makes sense.

One effect of this new paradigm of transport consumption will be significant reductions in demand for parking. Commercial operators of mobility services want to maximise “seat miles” – the time the vehicle is in-use by paying customers – which means minimising time in which the vehicle is idle or parked. When mobility means driverless pods which are essentially in perpetual motion, travelling from consumer to consumer, possibly not even needing to stop to charge (see dynamic charging for electric vehicles), the need for parking becomes a thing of the past. Service depots, likely out-of-town, will exist for cleaning and maintenance.

But mostly the cars will be moving, with sufficient intelligence in the data layer for service providers to maximise efficiency and seat miles by accurately predicting demand. So in addition to the widely accepted benefits of AVs, we should also consider the important impact of space reclaimed from parking. In a city like London which has a chronic shortage of affordable housing, unlocking prime real estate opens up exciting possibilities to add to the potential of autonomous vehicles to deliver cleaner, greener, smarter, more efficient cities.