A Glimpse of Tomorrow

Brett Wood

The questions are becoming so common, I can see them coming before they’re even asked. Invariably, when I am speaking at a conference or meeting, someone raises their hand and begins to ask about the future of transportation. Questions like, what about autonomous vehicles? Won’t that render parking useless? Or, millenials don’t drive! Won’t that change the way we think about parking?

I love these questions because they represent an opportunity to wax philosophically about how and why our transportation system is evolving. Are we responding to the needs of new drivers? Or are new drivers responding to policies and practices that the transportation industry has put in place during the past decade? It’s almost like what came first: the chicken or the TDM strategy?

I like to believe that the positive directions of transportation planners, urban planners, and parking professionals have started to shift people’s mindsets from the automobile and toward alternative modes of transportation. Things like car share, bike share, and ride share haven’t become popular because of fads in society, but rather because today’s planners have been able to capitalize on rising costs associated with driving, automobile ownership, and fuel prices. And the emerging generation has seen the fallacy in the quest for a suburban auto-dominated life. Maybe a perfect storm is driving these changes.

What I do know is that the future of transportation will likely continue to capitalize on these trends. In particular, the sharing economy will continue to drive changes in the way we provide transportation services. I was recently at a conference in Germany where BMW was promoting its focus on car share throughout the world. And Toyota was discussing a concept that goes well beyond that, linking transit, car share, and a mobility network of ultra-compact electric vehicles. The program, called HaMo, is being pilot-tested now in Japan and France. For more information, check out the YouTube video here.

If a system like this could be realized in urban settings, it would revolutionize the way we move about. It helps to solve first- and last-mile problems that have limited the effectiveness of connecting transit nodes with those areas outside of comfortable walking distances. And it continues to disincentivize single-occupancy vehicle use, which has plagued both parking and transportation networks.

So what does this mean for parking? The honest answer is that no one really knows. Less parking? Probably, but that’s not a bad thing. Smarter parking? Most definitely, but we have been moving in that direction for some time. As we continue to evolve this industry, we are only going to continue to push for more meaningful shifts in mobility and transportation.

Open Dialogue on TDM

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Planners, transit professionals, developers, and transportation demand management (TDM) experts have been on our list of people to reach out to and build partnerships with for the last several years. We know our industry’s work influences these perspectives and vice versa, and we’ve had success in attracting some of these folks to our events and inviting them to contribute to our publications.

I just returned from the Heartland Active Transportation Summit (HATS) held in Omaha, Neb. The theme was Parking for Livable Communities, and planner Jeff Speck and I delivered key note addresses to a crowd of about 250. Jeff spoke about what makes cities walkable, including how parking can contribute or not (see his new book and our interview with him in the September issue of The Parking Professional). I spoke about sustainability in parking and ways we can take lessons from other industries to illuminate our path forward.

What sets HATS apart and why the meeting was special is that the conference was not organized by the usual suspects–and by that, I mean us! This conference was organized and attended mostly by people who are not from the parking industry. Planners, transit professionals, and TDM experts put on the conference and seem to get by without our prodding to work together to address transportation, livability, and sustainability issues.

During one Q&A session, a comparison was made between Wichita and Omaha, and I gather that Wichita is outdoing Omaha in some regard. One member of the audience challenged the rest of the group by saying, “If Wichita can do it, so can we.” To that I say, if the planners, transit gurus, and TDM pros in the heartland can invite a meaningful and important dialogue with the parking profession, so too can everyone else.

My Worst Nightmare: The Parking Death Spiral

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This term “death spiral” conjures up images of nothing good in my mind. As a kid, I had a frequent nightmare about jumping off the bridge of a huge ship and spiraling downward without being able to stop my free-fall. Luckily, I’d always wake before hitting the water, where I’d certainly perish.

In a real death spiral, the thing spiraling (organization, state, business, or person) continues a downward progression that only accelerates as conditions worsen. Mounting inertia grows, making revival nearly impossible.

I recently returned from the Association for Commuter Transportation (ACT) annual University Summit, which brought together 60 transportation demand management (TDM) and parking professionals to talk about university parking and transportation. Some of the schools most successful in advancing the use of alternatives to driving were there, including Stanford, the University of Washington, Arizona State, and the University of Colorado. The topic of the death spiral was prominent at this conference and worthy of further consideration.

Most higher education parking departments are self-supporting auxiliaries. This means that no outside resources are provided, and programs and services are funded through parking fees and fines. Alternative transportation programs have become increasingly important to universities in reducing driving, furthering sustainability goals, and enhancing the pedestrian environment.

There is, from our perspective, a downside. As more people find alternative ways to reach campus, (bike, bus, carpool, walk) revenue streams and expenses are affected. The more successful an institution is in shifting people away from single-occupancy cars, the fewer parkers there are to fund the entire parking and transportation program. This creates a spiraling effect that can result in financial instability.

Some might argue that the obvious response is to abandon alternative transportation altogether. While I’d disagree wholeheartedly with that approach, I do believe that the traditional funding model for higher education parking and transportation may be incompatible with alternative transportation goals. A new model is needed. The strategic partnership between IPI and ACT offers the best chance of coming up with a new model to help us all avoid a TDM and parking nightmare.