Windy City shows way on parking future, by Cliff Hague

Parking lots are an extensive feature of US cities. Some are multi-storey, some are ground level and others are subterranean. Some are corner sites, whole blocks, purpose built or "temporary". But it seems the times they are a' changin', if not quite in the way Bob Dylan envisaged all those decades ago.

Whisper it, but the demise of the parking lot is being heralded. If it can happen in the USA, is it just a matter of time before Britain follows suit? What’s more, like the canary in the coalmine, the fate of the humble parking lot could be the harbinger of wider changes that will fundamentally alter the way we design urban areas.

A California-based international real estate consultancy is saying that a 50 per cent reduction in car parking needs is possible over the next 30 years. Green Street Advisors anticipate that driverless cars and the rise of smart technology cab-calling services such as Uber will reduce car ownership (https://www.greenstreetadvisors.com/insights/blog/the-transportation-revolution-is-here-and-heating-up) and change attitudes.

Parking is free in much of the USA, so parking provision in a development is a drain on returns. The real estate industry is therefore likely to be accommodating towards emergent trends. There are reports that some developers are buying up urban parking lots and adding them to their land banks, continuing to run them in their cheap-to-operate existing use until the time is ripe for conversion to a higher-value use.   

Take Chicago. Last year saw more than 4,000 apartments completed in its downtown area, a historic high, and jobs are also growing there. So there is pressure on sites in and around the famous Loop. Chicago is a city with a decent public transport system by US standards thanks to the "El" metro system, heavy rail trains and even bus services with decent frequency during commuting hours. Even traditional commuter suburbs have seen a rise in car-sharing. All this adds up to unimpressive returns for those operating downtown parking lots. Plans are in the pipeline for what will be two of the tallest towers in this skyscraper city, and in both cases the land is currently used for parking (http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/columnists/ori/ct-biz-parking-redevelopment-ryan-ori-20180308-story.html).

Air rights have long been a critical element in development in Chicago. Sensing the way the wind is blowing in the Windy City, there are reports that the ratio of parking spaces per unit in apartment developments is declining, especially where there they have easy access to public transport. Developers are also reported to be designing in-building parking structures in ways that enable them to be converted to office and residential uses in future.

We are seeing the start of a fundamental change from the kind of cities built in the 20th century age of mass car ownership. New technologies are impacting on transport and jobs in ways that will alter how and where people want to live. If planning is about shaping the future rather than regulating the present, it’s time to think outside the box – or the parking lot.

Cliff Hague OBE is a freelance consultant and researcher


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