Autonomous Driving, Parking and Planning

This week we are publishing D2D Issue #22, reporting back from our trip to China. This post is one of several in that note. Drop us a line or send us an e-mail if you would like to be added to distribution for the full report.

A few weeks ago, we attended a conference looking at the Future of Transportation. This was a small gathering of technologists from auto companies and regional transportation planners. The focus of much of the discussion was on cars, consumer behavior and the desire to find solutions to automobile traffic.

By now, these concepts should be pretty familiar to most readers. We once calculated that the US economy would save $600 billion a year in labor productivity lost to long commutes. But after a week in Beijing, I think it is important to expand the scope of analysis beyond the level of cars and look at what other benefits autonomous driving will bring.

Beijing, like many rapidly growing cities, now has some formidable traffic problems. (We budgeted two hours between every meeting and found this left very little cushion for on-time arrivals.) But there is another problem with all those cars – where to put them. In recent years, we have watched with mounting horror the difficulties of parking in Beijing. We visited a shopping district in an office park far from the center of the city, and at lunch time cars were double and triple parked the length of the entire street.

If you scan the Internet you can find a whole literature about the amount of space given over to parking. Multi-car garages in the US can occupy a third of the house’s square footage. Add up the amount of land set aside for parking lots and curb parking, and then the necessary buffers, it is a staggering amount of space. In the US our cities are now planned for parking (except in San Francisco which has adopted a deliberate plan to reduce the amount of parking, which is a whole other topic). If cars were autonomous, we could radically reshape the way we build cities. We could make cities denser without making them feel more crowed. Walking around a suburb could become realistic. If we want to get fully Utopian, we could imagine the health benefits from this alone. A more quantitative approach would be to calculate the real estate savings alone from halving parking, an amount that is probably measured in hundreds of billions of dollars.

We readily admit that this is a bit of fantastical, but it is not wholly unrealistic.

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