Driverless cars could spell the end for downtown parking – and cities need to plan ahead

A car park on London’s South Bank, 1970. Image: Getty.

Imagine a scene from the near-future: You get dropped off downtown by a driverless car. You slam the door and head into your office or appointment. But then where does the autonomous vehicle go?

It’s a question that cities would be wise to consider now. Self-driving cars may be on the roads within the next decade or two.

Automakers and specialized startups alike are aggressively developing automated vehicles (AVs), while government agencies explore ways to reduce regulatory barriers. Ride-hailing companies such as Lyft and Uber plan to operate some AVs, but others could become private robotaxis that drop owners off wherever they like and pick them up later.

Without policies to encourage sharing, it’s possible there could be many private AVs on the road. We are civil and environmental engineers who collaborated with Chris Hendrickson, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Traffic21 Institute, to examine the potential effects of private AVs on cities.

Using Seattle as a case study, our analysis suggests that one of the biggest effects of AV technology may be on parking, as AVs leave expensive downtown spots behind in favor of cheaper parking outside the city center.

Parking has a big footprint – and brings big bucks

Parking takes up a lot of land in cities.

Researchers at UCLA estimated that about 5 per cent to 8 per cent of urban land is devoted to curb parking. They estimated that the parking coverage – the ratio of parking area to total land area - in downtown Los Angeles and Houston are about 81 per cent and 57 per cent, respectively.

A 2018 parking study done by the Mortgage Bankers Association found that Seattle’s parking density of 29 parking stalls per acre of land is twice its population density of 13 people per acre.

Because driverless cars could park outside urban cores to avoid the higher parking charges downtown, they might considerably affect urban land use.

And there are potentially big fiscal consequences. Many cities gather a substantial amount of money from parking-related activities, with the 25 largest cities, collectively, generating $1.5bn in total revenue from parking fees and taxes in 2016.

In Seattle, for instance, annual revenues from parking meters total about $37m. In addition, Seattle also collects $39m and $21m in annual revenues from commercial parking lot taxes and parking fines, respectively.

Lower demand for parking could mean these funds – traditionally used for city operations including education, cultural resources and libraries – will need to be replaced through other sources of revenue.

Simulating a city with driverless cars

To gauge the potential effects of private AVs on parking, we used Seattle as a case study because data on all its off-street parking lots is available. We looked at factors including energy use, emissions, parking revenue and vehicle miles traveled (VMT), a key statistic used by traffic engineers to measure travel demand.

Our team obtained data from the Puget Sound Region Council on the daily occupancy and parking prices of all paid off-street parking garages and lots in downtown Seattle. We went on to identify areas outside of the downtown area with many unrestricted parking spaces, where vehicles can currently park free of charge during the day.

The model assumed AVs would rather travel long distances for free parking (green) than park in a paid parking lot (red), since this minimizes cost to the user. Image: Harper et al (2018)/creative commons.

Then we modeled privately owned AVs searching for cheaper parking, where each vehicle makes parking decisions based on availability and total cost, including both parking fees and all operational costs of the round trip to the parking space. Each AV’s objective is to minimize cost. An AV would not become frustrated sitting in congestion or cruising to find an open curb space, whereas a human driver would.

We varied the operating costs of AVs per mile across a range of values, to understand how future changes either in improved technology or imposed per mile taxes might affect the results.

More miles traveled, fewer parking garages?

We considered a range of possible adoption rates for private AVs, from a point when few high-income early adopters have AVs to total market penetration.

At low penetration rates – where anywhere from 5 to 50 percent of all cars traditionally parked downtown become automated – AVs are usually able to obtain their choice of parking space. In most cases, these are in free parking zones closest to where they drop passengers off downtown.

As more AVs come online, these free parking spaces closest to the downtown area fill up and cars must travel longer distances to obtain cheap parking. As market penetration rates rise, each vehicle would travel additional round trip miles in its quest for inexpensive parking.

With lower numbers of AVs on the road, this would have negligible impacts on the overall total miles traveled by cars in the Seattle region. But if all private cars parking downtown were AVs, the total daily miles traveled by cars in Seattle would increase by about 2.5 per cent, with each AV traveling an additional 8.5 miles each day on average. That change, even if it sounds small, could cause congestion along heavily traveled routes depending on the time day and the mix of human-driven vehicles on the road.

Our simulation shows that there is enough free parking just outside downtown Seattle that AVs would no longer choose to park in downtown lots. At current prices it’s more economical to travel for free parking than to park in a paid lot.

Some private AV owners may rent out their car during the day as a ride-hailing service, but for others it might make financial sense to send their car home during the day and have it pick them up later. That would further increase overall vehicle miles traveled.

No more parking downtown?

As AVs leave downtown, parking lot revenues could decline to the point where owning a parking lot or garage would no longer be economically viable. This presents both challenges and opportunities for cities. Cities could lose a substantial amount of annual parking revenue in a future with more AVs.

We see a few ways that cities could strategically adapt parking requirements to prepare for additional travel by self-driving cars.

For example, cities could implement congestion pricing: a fee or tax paid by users to enter the urban core of the city. They could encourage more public and active transportation, like biking and walking. They could also change the rules for parking in areas where it’s now unrestricted and free, or try a combination of these options.

Cities could experiment with what’s called a scaled VMT tax: a fee for an AV to enter a downtown zone based on the number of miles it’s already traveled that day. This option might discourage an increase in housing sprawl with AVs and reduce the number of people using AVs to get downtown. In addition, encouraging AVs to be powered by electricity rather than gasoline would reduce the environmental impact of any additional travel.


Much of the land devoted to parking lots in today’s cities could be converted to parks, housing or commercial spaces, and reducing curb parking could allow for wider bike lanes or sidewalks. To take advantage of changing parking demand, cities could build adaptable parking garages that can be converted to other uses if they’re no longer needed. Garages with flat floors and exterior ramps, rather than interior ramps, can more easily be converted to commercial uses or housing.

Cities would need to look for other sources of revenues to supplement the money lost from parking taxes, revenues and tickets. Some of these resources may be recovered through VMT and congestion fees, or by replacing underutilized parking structures with new denser uses.

While robotaxis are not here yet, preparing now for changes in downtown parking and infrastructure could help cities respond when privately owned AVs start to hit the streets.

Corey Harper, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University and Constantine Samaras, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.