As the global population becomes increasingly urbanized, city leaders will have to find ways to prepare for the influx of people—and their cars.
Cities like San Francisco and London are bursting at the seams, and they have the sky-high rents to prove it. So reclaiming even a small portion of this space could provide much needed relief. Officials in both cities are considering how to use technology to clear the roads of cars and reduce the need for parking. A report from the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at University of California, Berkeley, found there are a billion parking spots in the US—four for every car in the country. When combined with car-centric infrastructure such as streets, 50 to 60 percent of a given downtown area is devoted to vehicles.
San Francisco’s Smart City proposal found that the city currently has 440,000 on-street parking spaces that take up an area equivalent to the city’s 1,000-acre Golden Gate Park, and would “still fill the floor space of 120 Transamerica Pyramids.
“Our plan,” the proposal added, “would phase in innovative technologies that allow us to repurpose public space currently under-utilized as parking into affordable housing, small parks and pedestrian amenities.”
An initial step would be to make ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft more ubiquitous and accessible and combine them with mass transit options. This would lessen reliance on street parking since rideshare vehicles typically are in motion and don’t park as often, the city said. And since ridesharing vehicles can accommodate multiple passengers, they also take up less space on the road.
“We can move the same amount of people with a tenth of the vehicles,” Timothy Papandreou, the former head of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Office of Innovation,” told the Washington Post. “We’re not going to need to have all that excess road space.”
Phase one of the San Francisco proposal is to shift 10 percent of single-occupancy vehicle trips to public transit and ride-hailing services. To do this the city would partner with the University of California Berkeley and tech companies on initiatives, such as:
- Give people incentives to shift from driving their own cars to ridesharing, such as designating certain lanes for ridesharing only, and integrating other modes of transit such as car- and bike-sharing and public transportation into a single mobile app that combines routing, scheduling, and payment for all of these services.
- Making transportation alternatives more affordable for low-income residents and finding ways to lower the cost of ridesharing by deploying large passenger vans similar to the Bay Area’s Chariot service, which was recently acquired by Ford.
- Implementing self-driving electric vehicles that could be shared.
London has space and affordability issues similar to San Francisco, and a recent study by two British engineering firms envisioned how the city’s streets could be entirely redesigned for self-driving cars. It takes into account that autonomous cars would be shared instead of owned, and always on the road picking up and dropping off passengers or charging/refueling/parking in a few centralized locations.
Hence, autonomous cars would require much less street parking. They can also travel in closer proximity and can much be smaller, a la Google’s robo-pod car, than human-driven vehicles. This would allow city planners to reduce the width of streets or even cut back on the number of lanes without affecting travel times. The study concluded that London could gain another 15 to 20 percent of developable area “primarily due to the removal of almost all parking spaces, but also because of road space simplification.”
Of course, this utopian urban vision faces many challenges. It sounds about as far-fetched as flying cars did 50 years ago, and those have not yet come to fruition. It will be years if not decades before self-driving technology is reliable and safe enough to handle urban situations like pedestrians and bicyclists. And it will take at least as long before human driving is completely phased out—if it ever can be.
Originally published by PCMag.com