How will widespread adoption of autonomous cars change America? One way of answering – and a useful example of futures thinking – is to focus on one small piece of the puzzle. Namely, what can we do with parking lots and structures?
Starting to think about this topic is a good futuring exercise. After beginning with one shiny new thing (driverless cars), the prompt drives us (sorry) to imagine transformations to one bit of public space. To do so we have to aggregate a bunch of forces beyond parking lots, from regulatory changes to public attitudes and urban design. It’s like the line attributed to Poul Anderson, that a science fiction writer (as futurist) should not just imagine flying cars, but also the traffic jams they’d be stuck in.
One architect imagines parking structures gradually emptying out as ride sharing and Uber combine with other peak car elements to shrink the automative fleet and our use of it. What could we do with those imposing structures?
Cohen points to several details that would allow The MOD’s parking structure to slowly transition over time from a place that only serves cars to one that serves people. By raising the floor height and making sure floors are level between ramps, the space anticipates new uses. The addition of knockout panels and modular sections make walls and ceilings easily removable, allowing light and circulation between levels. And garages can be outfitted with the proper amenities like utility hookups to prepare them for future workspace or retail uses.
Another architect offers a different vision. Sergio Lopez-Pineiro suggests turning disused garages into zones for play and experimentation.
a space to be used for playing or jogging, sheltered from the rain in inclement weather, covered in the coldest months by a seasonally-installed fabric bubble of the sort that keeps tennis courts playable in the winter. The space would morph and shift according to the needs of the surrounding community. It would be, essentially, the urban iteration of an empty field.
My wife and one correspondent both suggested another option: turning parking garages into urban gardens, either for beauty or food.
What would it take for these transformations to occur? Think of the regulatory changes, plus human expectation shifts (would you shop for food in a garage?), not to mention infrastructure work.
Back to Poul Anderson: I can see problems with how these unfold. Lopez-Pineiro’s spaces could become danger zones for assault, or just empty out into inutility under the perceived threat of same. Andy Cohen’s retail and/or residential spaces might not convince people to inhabit them, and therefore run downhill into emptiness and/or slums.
Alternatively, city authorities or gentrifiers could deliberately drive unwanted people and business into these repurposed spaces, while reserving non-automative spaces for the wealthy and otherwise more acceptable populations. This could be done openly and deliberately, or encouraged quietly through a combination of policies and incentives. As Lambert Strether comments, “I have no problem rewriting this sunny little article in dystopian terms…”
Back to education: the second image above has a fascinating caption. “A parking garage at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois was designed to easily convert into classroom space.” This seems a bit counterintuitive to me, as higher education enrollments haven’t been increasing for a half-decade. What would the need be for such new spaces, beyond unusual local conditions? Would a parking lot class signal lower tuition costs, or seek to pick up a makerspace vibe? Alternatively, if such spaces appear and are acculturated as lower class, is that where financially suffering colleges and universities would turn?
We could extend this thought experiment a bit further. If houses are less likely to have garages, they could absorb that space for other uses. If the car fleet shrinks and turns electric, what happens to gas stations? We could shrink or cut across roads for non-car purposes: “Reduced congestion could give way to green spaces or pedestrian walkways as safety improvements eliminate the need for wide roads.”
All of this is based on several major forces succeeding in having a big impact. They might not. Driverless cars might not win over a majority of the population, especially if the technology doesn’t bear out. Car ownership could plateau, especially if we rethink cars as multi-use spaces (for work, relaxation, even inhabitation). And it remains to be seen if electrical power will transform the full automotive world, from trucks to taxis.
But *if* these changes occur, even to a rough extent, we need to have been thinking about their implications beforehand. Which is where futuring exercises like this one come in handy.