The sharing ecosystem that driverless cars are going to usher in is going to cut down on the number of cars on the road and as a consequence, will kill the modern parking lot. Cities could look completely different with 80 percent fewer cars on the road, you know.
The vision (and that number), put forward by Carlos Ratti, director of MIT‘s Sensible City Lab earlier this week, isn’t new: Autonomous cars and buses will supplement public transit by providing “last mile” transport. People will share rides instead of owning cars, cutting down the number of vehicles needed for mobility in congested cities dramatically.
“Your car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in your family—or, for that matter, to anyone else in your neighborhood, social-media community, or city,” Ratti said in an email.
Eighty percent fewer cars. And, with it, an entirely new city experience, according to Ratti, who is dreaming up the future of cities. On those city streets, driverless cars might not look like cars at all—they might be more like shuttles or smaller, more personalized forms of public transport.
Ratti doesn’t imagine autonomous taxis, as been’s speculated since Google’s Uber purchase, more like a shared transport vehicle. “I think the difference between private and public transport will be obsolete with time. We will share cars, and provide a public transport network with the quality of a private system,” he said. “We’ll probably forget about taxis.”
So there’ll be fewer cars, but those that remain will be in use more often—might as well kill the parking lot, then. Some experts estimate that today’s cars spend roughly 95 percent of their time in parking spaces, and up to 30 percent of all car traffic in city centers is due to cars looking for parking spots. In fact, cars are parked over 90 percent of the time even when people are generally awake. With no need to store them, that city-center traffic goes away, as do parking lots and garages that are taking up valuable downtown space.
Ratti says that we’re looking at “potentially a big reduction in the number of parking lots and their conversion into other uses.”
You can build more living areas, more green space, and generally make cities a lot more livable: “Green and public spaces would be an option of course,” he said. “More generally, I think that we will need more and more public spaces, when technology frees us from the slavery of office cubicles.”
Driverless cars, Molly Cohen, a contributor to Harvard Law School’s City Law blog wrote last year, “Could revolutionize the look and feel of urban spaces, as all the land devoted to parking lots could be transformed into other uses. (Some cities have as much as 1/3 of their useable land mass dedicated to parking, and a parking spot can cost up to $5,000 to build.),” she wrote. “Imagine parks and playing fields outside of big box stores rather than a sea of parking spaces. Zoning codes would have to adapt and eliminate their extensive parking requirements.”
It’s an idea that the New York Times explored last year, and it’s one that’s going to take place slowly and in iterations. It is starting in cities such as Singapore, where Ratti recently spoke at the World Cities Summit. A modern, forward-looking city, Ratti believes Singapore could be an ideal test bed for the technology. MIT is working with the city to test a micro fleet of driverless shuttles—modified golf carts—at the National University of Singapore‘s campus.
Then, maybe we’ll start seeing a transformation in cities in countries like the Netherlands, whose politicians just made their intentions clear: to go all-in on the technology. It’s something that will be explored in miniature cities made to see what you do and don’t need with driverless cars. Maybe cities will have fewer traffic lights; maybe roads will have fewer lanes, and maybe, someday, you’ll never have to wait in traffic, or look for a parking spot, ever again.