Even with the backing of companies such as Google, Tesla and Cruise, the idea of driverless cars toting us around in the near future seemed like sci-fi wishful thinking to many observers. That was until recently, when Toyota advanced from testing automated vehicles to announcing its plans to sell them by 2020. Driverless cars are no longer a matter of if but when — and, perhaps more importantly, with what consequences?
While researchers consider the ethical questions surrounding automated vehicles (e.g., should car computers prioritize their drivers' safety, or others'?) and work out the remaining technical hurdles, it's well past time to start considering what driverless cars might mean to residents of the city where the car is king.
One of the promised benefits of driverless cars (though not necessarily the models we may see on dealer lots in 2020) is the reduction of transportation infrastructure. In Los Angeles, perhaps the most profound change automation has the potential to bring is a decreased need for parking spaces. There are an estimated 18.6 million parking spaces in incorporated L.A. County, 14% of all the land. An estimated 95% of the time our cars do nothing but sit and occupy space. Road congestion isn't simply a product of the commuters in front of you, but the loss of potential traffic lanes to curbside parking.
Off-street parking has its own costs. "The more downtown is broken up and interspersed with parking lots and garages, the duller and deader it becomes," the urbanist Jane Jacobs once wrote. According to a 2005 study, the amount of space devoted to parking in downtown L.A. was a staggering 81% (albeit some of it verticalized in parking structures), compared to 25% and 31% in Phoenix's and San Francisco's respective central business districts.
Whether individually-owned or shared as a collective resource, driverless cars have the potential to reduce that 81% figure and its equivalents elsewhere the city. Parking in Los Angeles is highly decentralized, in part because of the perceived inconvenience of walking a significant distance between one's parking space and destination. Driverless cars, however, can act as their own valets, providing curbside service before proceeding unassisted to underutilized parking structures.
What kind of impact could this potentially have on the region? Studies have shown roughly 30% of traffic in central business districts is caused by drivers hunting for curbside spaces. Consider Santa Monica, where during the weekday peak, according to a city-employed parking consultancy, the six closest parking structures to the Santa Monica Promenade reach 90% capacity. The next two closest structures, meanwhile, remain under 40% capacity. Driverless cars have the potential to better distribute demand for existing parking spaces, reducing traffic in the process.
Shifting parking from the curbside and strip mall lots to centralized structures will likely carry additional benefits for non-drivers too. Even with existing cars — let alone the more futuristic stackable cars that some researchers propose — driverless cars can be packed into structures more tightly than can human-operated vehicles. Parking lanes can then be converted into bike paths and wider sidewalks — all in line with the goals of L.A.'s Mobility Plan 2035. Developers, meanwhile, will no doubt be thrilled at the prospect of potentially having to provide less off-street parking, which could lead to more housing units being built.
These changes won't come easily. Generally wary of giving up the wheel, American drivers are even more skeptical of the idea of automated parking. 39% would prefer not to have an automatic parking system in their next car, despite ample evidence that such systems outperform humans. But, given the low speeds involved, parking is one of the safest and simplest behaviors to automate.
While many are focused on how driverless cars might change our individualized automotive experience, it's just as important to consider how they will transform the city at large. In the near future, what is arguably the most wasteful feature of L.A.'s streets — the overwhelming swath of parking spaces — could soon become one of its biggest open resources.
Justin Clark is an urban historian. He is writing a book on the transformation of 19th century Boston. Twitter: @Justin_T_Clark