Unpaving Paradise: Do Driverless Cars Mean the End of Parking Lots?

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The ability to send or summon vehicles anywhere could transform urban and suburban landscapes

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Should driver-less cars become a commonplace way of getting from here to there - Google is already sending them out on public roads - Koushik Dutta posits that instead of vehicles that sit idle most of the time, as is now the case, our collective fleet will be more like commercial airliners, which are almost always in use.

The result: fewer total cars.

Why would a household buy 2 (or even 3) cars, when they only need 1? Ride to work, then send the car home to your spouse. Need to go grocery shopping, but your kid also needs a ride to a soccer game? No problem, a driverless car can handle that.What will begin as households cutting back to a single car, will expand. Why would a family need an entire car to themselves?

That's crazy!

It may start as extended family in the same area sharing cars, then neighbors sharing cars, and then entire apartment/condo complexes in cities offering driverless cars bundled into their HOA/rent.

All this presumes significant technological improvements and accompanying cultural changes. Still, it sounds plausible. And it got me thinking about how dramatically urban and suburban landscapes would be transformed if, suddenly, there wasn't any need for most parking spaces. The local 7-Eleven might retain its current number of spots. But hotels, boutiques, and other hot spots?

For the Apple store or organic farmer's market or shopping mall or any other place where people spend more than a few minutes, it would make sense to pull up to the entrance, hop out, and send your car... where exactly? Back home, or to circle the block, or a half-mile away to a giant parking structure or field -- there are all sorts of possibilities. What wouldn't make sense is the current practice of dedicating lots of prime-real estate to parking, whether of the parallel or angled variety.

Spontaneous order probably won't prevail in the aftermath of such a change. Some rules would be necessary to prevent, for example, the whole Staples Center crowd from sending for their vehicles the moment the Lakers game ends. And zoning laws and development codes would need to change to take full advantage of the new realities brought about by the driverless car.

For that reason, it's worth starting to think through what parking should look like in such a world. The task is complicated by uncertainty about how people will respond. For example, freed from the need to drive, cars might be outfitted like mini-living rooms with lots of entertainment options and comforts -- mini-bars even! -- such that folks would prefer riding in their own car even more than today. Or it could be the case that driverless cars would usher in an era of car-sharing or reliance on big yellow driverless taxis that could be reliably summoned.

There are, finally, business opportunities -- for the self-fueling gas station, the grocery store that puts pre-ordered foodstuffs in your trunk right before your car picks you up from work, the job-retraining centers for valet parking attendants and even the driverless food truck. It won't have a problem finding parking.


Image credit: cdedbdme

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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