After human-driven cars: one future for automotive spaces

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?

parking structure_The_MOD_Los_Angeles_3

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.


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10 Responses to After human-driven cars: one future for automotive spaces

  1. Dr. David Edwin Stone says:

    Georgia State University’s Kell Hall was formerly a parking garage. It was re-purposed in 1945 as the school was growing too quickly to build adequate space. It is just now being torn down to make way for green space for the urban campus.

  2. Paolo Soleri proposed car sharing for his Arcologies he designed starting in the 1960’s. (Architecture + Ecology = complex walkable 3D cities in a single megastructure)
    I’m still waiting for a public conversation on whether (the communal as opposed to Royal) we want or need autonomous automobiles. Or EdTech for that matter. Both are being foisted on us by the austerity regimes of neoliberal capital. If we don’t fix our gerrymandered government so we can participate in decision making through democratic means, and corporations continue to use the state to impose their interests, then American fascism will continue to grow whether we Heil Trump or not.

    • Ah, Soleri. What a dreamer and visionary. Did you catch how William Gibson had people living in arcologies in his early novels?

      We’re having a fragmentary conversation about autonomous cars now in the classic American way: journalism, business ideas, polling. Interesting how it hasn’t really gone further yet.

      • I studied with Soleri when lived at Arcosanti and worked on several peripheral projects 1976-79, before I made the choice to become a craftsman. He was talking about the difference between complex and merely complicated systems, long before complexity became a field of study. I also started thinking about fascism during that time as Soleri was an autocrat that came of age in Mussolini’s Italy (24 when El Dulce was hanged) and later he studied with another autocrat, Frank Lloyd Wright.
        I love the early Gibson novels and would argue his inspiration was Kenzo Tange and the Metabolists, Peter Cook’s Plug-in City and more from Britain’s Archigram group. Soleri centered ecology and geography, not to mention theology, as opposed to urban planning.

      • Steven Kaye says:

        There’s also Oath of Fealty, which turned me off Niven and Pournelle.

  3. Arnaud Leene says:

    And what if we put all the cars in tunnels?

  4. Joe Murphy says:

    I find myself stuck a little bit on the “peak car” argument. It seems to me that a certain excess car capacity is required, as long as we have a standard work (and K-12 school) day. If we need more cars between, say, 7 and 10 AM and 4 and 7 PM, then those cars have to be somewhere at 2 AM. We could, indeed, choose to have them in street parking and driveways, which might be more efficient for rush hour deployment – but that suggests a tradeoff between parking structures and those narrower streets and wider greenways you also consider.

    Indeed, from a planning perspective, it occurs to me that one of the benefits of automated cars would be always having valet parking! It would no longer matter whether I parked close to my destination, if I could tell the car to drop me off and then go park however far away it takes. We could see fewer but larger (and much much denser) parking garages.

    (I notice that I’ve assumed I care where “my” car is parked. I think one of my problems with the “peak car” argument is that I don’t see how it addresses car ownership as a useful signifier of class and identity.)

    A tangential thought to the parking structure issue – this idea of automated, ride-shared cars suggests a lot more wear and tear. Sounds good for auto mechanic jobs!

    A rhizomatic thought connecting threads on your blog – Tressie McMillan Cottom talks about students thinking about student loans as “investment”, not “debt”. Will the same principle apply here? Should I get a nicer car and take out a bigger auto loan as an investment in my side hustle? (Which also connects to Cottom’s material on the value of time… if your car could have a part-time job without you having to be in it, that’s a pretty strong argument to buy time by taking out the bigger loan.)

  5. aarondavis1 says:

    I recently visited Auckland and it felt like every spare block was turned into a car park. I could not help but wonder what this would all look like in a few years. Am assuming that this is not the only city that has over invested in car parks.

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