Driverless cars are coming yet we’re still building parking garages

When we build let us think we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work that our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone upon stone, that a time is to come when these stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See! This our fathers did for us.”

John Ruskin

Driverless cars are coming. I don’t know when exactly, but it will be less than ten years. Maybe as soon as five. How long before they become pervasive—so pervasive that the overwhelming majority of vehicular transportation is via an autonomous vehicle? Another five after that? Another twenty? Impossible to say, but when it happens, things are going to be a lot different.

Conventional cars will be like horses. Some people will keep conventional cars for sport or hobby, some people will actually use them for work, but no one else will own them. This isn’t a radical statement; Lots of people are making this prediction.

Getting around. When you want to go somewhere in town, and it’s inconvenient by foot or bicycle, you’ll walk out your front door and a golf-cart sized autonomous electrical vehicle will arrive within a minute. Call it a rickshaw. This rickshaw will take you anywhere within five miles at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

It will cost you less than a dollar a mile. There will be more affordable and more expensive options. You’ll pay more to have a nicer ride, for it to show up quickly, and things like that. You’ll probably pay a membership fee with a particular company to have some sort of preferred or premium service.

In urban areas, rickshaws will spend far less of their time unoccupied, so rides will be cheaper. Suburban and rural residents will have to pay a lot more, because the vehicles in their areas will have more (and much longer) empty legs.

Highway travel. For long-haul travel, you’ll summon a different type of vehicle that’s capable of much faster speeds on highways. It will take more than a minute to show up and it will have a higher minimum fare but a lower per mile rate. And it will go really fast. On a trip from Atlanta to Charleston, you’ll reach speeds of well over 100 MPH. What is now a five hour trip will take less than three, and might cost $100 for a family of four plus their stuff.

If you’d like to ride the bus (which will also be driverless), you’ll need to go to the station to catch it, but it will be even cheaper.

What this means for pedestrians. The rickshaw will deftly avoid collisions, and it will gracefully give right-of-way to cyclists and pedestrians. Minor accidents (between rickshaws and pedestrians, cyclists, and other rickshaws) will be so uncommon that they will make the news.

With the near-elimination from city streets of big cars and driver-error, streets will return to their rightful owners: the pedestrian. Unobstructed paved city surfaces will narrow from their 2 to 6 driving lanes (usually 30′ to 100′) to something less than 20 feet.

As a pedestrian, you won’t walk to the crosswalk before crossing the street, you’ll simply cross—and rickshaws will stop to let you pass. How civilized!

What this means for housing. Great news for the remodeling industry! There are over 100 million houses in America, and most of them have substantial real estate dedicated to car storage. A great many of these houses are designed explicitly to have the occupants interact with the world via their car (i.e. the main entry to the house is via the garage or via the back door).

We have seen a huge boom in aging in place remodeling. The next big boom will be even bigger than aging in place: Our remodeling industry will be repurposing the vestigial car-dedicated square footage to other uses (granny flats and dependencies, also known in the industry as “accessory dwelling units” or ADUs) and reconfiguring existing living space to re-orient residents’ traffic back through the front door.

Density, Accessory Dwelling Units, and Housing Affordability. You might be thinking, “City councils started outlawing ADUs decades ago. There’s no way they’ll let people rent out their converted garages as apartments! Right?”

I don’t think this change will happen overnight, but it’s worth remembering that two huge reasons ADUs have become illegal in many cities are PARKING and TRAFFIC! Parking is expensive and limited in urban environments, and as we became more of a car culture, renters began consuming more of our car storage. So we got our city councils to outlaw them. When the idea of “more people” no longer triggers concerns about more car traffic (odious and dangerous) and more limited parking (annoying), the fear of ADUs (and housing density in general) will evaporate.

And when people can rent out a small apartment in their home, we diversify the housing stock while dramatically lowering the effective cost of home ownership. That’s right: Driverless cars will create affordable housing.

Great for cities, good for suburbs. I know plenty of urbanists who worry that self-driving cars will make suburbs more desirable. I think self-driving cars will make things easier for everyone, regardless of where they live, and they’ll have the biggest positive impact on cities. Why?

Today’s cars are horrible for pedestrians. They are loud. They stink. They take up space. They are scary and deadly. When you remove cars and car storage from cities, cities become cleaner, quieter, and more beautiful. Without cars our cities gain a tremendous amount of real estate for human uses like living, sleeping, eating, shopping, playing, and working. Imagine downtown Atlanta with every parking garage replaced by a human use. Imagine the streets. Imagine the new shops, offices, condos, and apartments. Imagine the vibrancy. That is coming and it’s not too far away.

In suburbs, things won’t change nearly as much. They are designed largely to insulate people from unpleasant interactions. Driverless cars will improve suburbs, but not nearly so much as they will improve cities. So while it will be a positive for all locations, it will be a huge win for city living.

With all these great changes coming, why are we still making 1980s-type infrastructure investments? Parking garages are expensive. Highway widenings are expensive. MARTA stations are expensive. Trolleys are expensive. We’re spending our children’s money on things they will never use. It’s time to rethink that and start getting assumptive.

Here are two straightforward and free ways that cities can get ahead of the curve:

  1. Accessory Dwelling Units. Re-legalize ADUs. In my neighborhood in Atlanta, ADUs were legal until a few decades ago. Now the city relies on parking-frenzied neighbors to rat out other neighbors who have the gall to lease their basement to a graduate student or a young couple. The prohibitions turn neighbor against neighbor. Let’s put an end to that pronto.
  2. Eliminate minimum parking requirements. In intown Atlanta, the cost of using Uber or Lyft is already approaching the cost of owning a car. We shouldn’t force the extra expense of parking garages on people who could more affordably or comfortably live in the city if they weren’t forced to also pay for car storage they don’t need. What’s worse (much worse) is that 20 years from now, “parking” will be a thing of the distant past!

So why are we still building parking garages? Why are we still widening highways? Let’s envision the future we want to have 50 years from now, and start building it. We have new technologies today (and a great many coming very soon) that will enable us to live much better in the future. Ignoring those and continuing to build like it’s 1980 pushes our great future farther into the distance.