Reducing parking requirements to zero

In a previous post, I riffed off an article in the LA Times saying discussing reduced parking requirements. Since then, I’ve changed my mind. I said that reducing the availability of parking coupled with increasing development density would lead to more biking and walking trips. But that isn’t true any more.

Since writing that post back in 2012, self-driving cars have become a reality. Nobody can deny that self-driving cars will be common very soon, because you can go buy a Tesla now that can pretty much already drive itself. Even better autonomous tech is being tested by Waymo (Google’s Alphabet’s self-driving car subsidiary) on the road, and for a little while it seemed even DIY kits would become available (although it seems the NHTSA has put the kibosh on that, but the project isn’t dead yet). Most new cars have some sort of self-driving technology integrated into them, from blind spot and cross traffic detection to “smart” cruise control that even works in stop and go conditions.

Why is this important, and why does this change my mind about the impact of dense development and reduced parking inventory on walk and bike trips? Unlike regular cars, self-driving cars will not need to be parked! I have yet to see any of my colleagues in transportation give this fact a thorough analysis, but at the very least, being able to get out of your car at your destination and then send that car away will eliminate the need to park at your destination. In the most likely scenario, the vehicle will drive off a few minutes away to some other place where parking is cheap and plentiful. If there is no parking inventory at all, the autonomous car can just circle the block like some crazed helicopter parent.

So the folks who think parking inventory is a way to influence mode choice will soon find their favorite hammer is no longer able to hit that particular nail. On the flip side, circling, empty autonomous vehicles will definitely add significantly to congestion problems. This won’t bother travelers much, because, as I said, self-driving cars, but it may bother planners, traffic engineers, and the auto club lobbyists. I used to think that those empty vehicles could be used by their owners to make money on the side using one of the ride-hailing services, but apparently that won’t happen because the car companies will own the software licenses to the autonomous vehicles and won’t allow independent revenue use (for example, Tesla expressly forbids this even now, unless the owner does so within the “Tesla Network”.

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