Do we want to live on a parking lot?


Copenhagenize has an interesting article titled Parking the Bull – The Price of Copenhagen Car Parking which deals with automobiles in cities.

The article begins as follows:

Do we want to live on a parking lot?
Picture: Lars Barfred

Parking The Bull – and Ignoring it Completely

We have a choice. It’s an actual choice. Do we want to live by a park or by a parking lot?

Judging from real estate prices, most of us prefer the first choice. We have, however, such a counterproductive urban model of society that we end up choosing the latter. Living in a parking lot. Sure, that’s better than living in a sewer, but perhaps it’s just a matter of time before we have merged our habitat into an integrated housing sewer and parking facility.

The increasing number of parking lots and cars and, in the Danish perspective, even more frequent storms with wild amounts of precipitation – like we’ve seen the past few years – may well ensure our housing in cities becomes more integrated with our sewage system.

Much of this is related to Copenhagen but, in my experience, it’s the same dynamics and issue in most larger cities.

I Think You Are Asking The Wrong Question

I respect the Copenhagenize point of view and its writer. I have corresponded more often with the administrator of the Amsterdamize site. But both fellows are on the bleeding edge of their consultative professions. But I still think the question being posed is the wrong one. Why?

Because it is really a subtext for the usual diatribe on automobiles and the injuries they inflict on urban city life. But in fact cars are not the problem, they themselves have never really been allowed to do the driving. It is the drivers who are impatient and aggressive who make city life sometimes unbearable.

If the automobile were self-guiding and even more fuel-efficient it would mean greater safety and less environment impact. California has signed into law the self-driving automobile. I predict it will change the landscape in ways that will ultimately be for the better. Improved technologies are going to make cities more sustainable in their use of fossil fuels and safer when it comes to transport in and out of these metropolitan hubs.

But frankly I see the relevance of large dense cities waning in the coming decades. And it makes me want to ask a different question: Do you want to live cheek-by-jowel with your neighbors? This seems a more appropriate question given the advent of the commute-less worker. All of the issues surrounding the sustainability of the automobile fade away if the primary residence becomes the office of the future.

Teachers Warned About Their Jobs

A few years ago I sat in on the beginning of school year symposium of the district for which I worked. One of the speakers was something of a futurist and he kept making the point that teachers were always asking the wrong questions. They wanted to know what was going to be done about class sizes? How long was the school day going to be? In fact how long was the school year going to be and when would they get parking spaces suitable to their station in life?

If you have not visited a high school setting in years you are probably unaware that the single biggest issue in most schools these days is adequate student parking. In the past the question was always do we have enough school buses to accommodate the needs of children who live more than a few miles from the building. But today things have changed.

If you are a visitor to virtually any suburban high school campus you will find that parking is almost non-existent should you arrive after the start of the school day. And it is large due to the overwhelming use of automobiles by students. They are more likely than ever to need a car to get back and forth to class and sometimes to their after school jobs. But frankly suburban living dictates that if you want to go anywhere that an automobile be available and even bicycles are not as useful in the sprawling settings of most suburbs.

Suddenly if you want to change things you have to be thinking about ways to reduce automobile usage by students. And in addition it becomes evident that other technologies have inundated the schools to the point that they have become a problem. Thirty years ago we dealt with the problem of first calculators entering the classroom. And closely following this the growth of computers in those same classrooms. We dealt with both in a more or less successful way.

But there is a new sheriff in town and that is the Internet. It makes the need to drive or be bussed to class into a non-neccesity. You can visit the library, attend a school lecture and engage in a class discussion group all from the comfort of your bedroom or study. And with this re-emphasis on satellite training things like the cafeteria, classroom sizes, student lockers, and inadequate parking spaces become a distant memory.

The speaker on that particular day chose to get our attention by describing the impact that the internet and more precisely e-mail was having on the US Postal Service. He declared that this service would eventually dry up or be transformed into something else altogether. What the new means of transporting packaging will look like in future is anybody’s guess.

Cities Have To Be Looking Over Their Shoulders

When you think about it big, dense cities really have no pressing need to exist if the internet evolves into an ever more immediate means of communication. The pressures on support systems for business are enormous. The need to fly halfway around the world for a business meeting is reduced greatly by services which allow people to collaborate electronically. Airlines are probably reeling to some extent from the reduction in business flights.

Retailers who were once the showcases for downtown sections of cities are less likely to actually do business out of these stores. Online purchasing is all the rage. You can do virtual shopping and have both a nifty discount coupon provided online along with free shipping. Why would anyone continue to believe that driving to a crowded mall and schlepping bags up and down escalators served as anything more than a chance to visit a quaint scene. If you really want to get things done these days you do the shopping online.

Chris Kegel the owner of Wheel and Sprocket has found that online shopping is growing to the extent that his emphasis is beginning to shift from brick and mortar sales alone to the new business model provided by eBay sales. If you watch the video in the previous link you will see that the dynamics of the future of small businesses is changing. And not just small businesses. Large businesses are seeing a decline in in-store seasonal sales and a big bump in online shopping.

Gone are the days when municipalities could afford to give online sales a boost by ignoring the paltry sales tax income that were represented. Today the guys who are crying foul are the brick-and-mortar shops. They have overhead costs that include parking space maintenance, outdoor lighting, heating, bathrooms, pilferage and more. If the bulk of your sales are online you can afford to be the kind of business that REI and Cabelas represent. People come to a Cabelas store not because they have to but because they want to.

But anyone seeking to shop at a Cabelas had better own an automobile or take public transportation. And for my money this is the way in which future businesses will operate. They will have flagship stores in sprawling suburban areas and a handful of smaller ones in cities but for the most part everyone will do serious shopping online.

So Why Dense Cities?

In the past it made sense because housing your workforce close to their offices or manufacturing sites was important. But big anything is generally not as efficient as smaller anything. It takes on average some fifteen minutes to exit the Willis Tower if you work above the middle levels. Why would anyone want to work in such a large building?

It is large enough that you need to consider having shops providing food right on the premises. These large business buildings are in fact small cities. But are they essential? I don’t think so. You could easily relocate such large office spaces to smaller and more widespread locations in the suburbs. After all the suburbs are where most of the workers are commuting from each day and that would make their commutes more consistent with sustainability. But if you begin to remove the need for such large buildings you are also signaling the need for people to live away from the city and that means larger distances to traverse unless of course you are connecting with everyone via the Internet.

My Predictions

People are really not clamoring to live by parks. They are far more likely to pay high prices to live by water. Beach front property is expensive and far more appealing than a park. Parks are fine but forest preserves (which we have in abundance in DuPage County) provide not only greater options than parks but are also capable of housing trails that when connected could support a bicycle super highway.

Cities are going to shrink in terms of numbers of inhabitants even further than they already have. In fact the clout that urban cyclists are likely to have will diminish in the coming decades as it becomes clear that the rise in urban travel via bicycles has leveled off in favor of much smaller self-driving electric cars and public transportation options that are really world class.

If the rise in commuter train usage is any harbinger of the future we can expect to see folks enjoying full access to Wi-Fi or whatever will replace it going forward and more service rich stations to support the growing numbers of commuters. But the stops that they will be making will not always be the downtown areas of the city.

Instead people will be finding their way to slightly more urbane areas surrounding the central city where there is greater opportunity to find inexpensive land and more inviting scenery. Corporations like Motorola pioneered the suburban office space idea. But again getting to and from these places will require more sophisticated public transportation or far more sophisticated automobiles. My money is on the automobile.

What has always made bicycle travel seem frivolous is the kind of weather we experience here in Chicago and New York. When the winter settles upon the landscape it makes it a daunting task indeed to suit up and ride to work on icy roadways where visibility is minimal even in the best of times and terrible in a blizzard. And as the population ages it means that mechanical transportation becomes more important.

Pretty green painted bike lanes do not provide warmth and comfort. They work best in the warmer months and lose their attractiveness with the approach of winter. In fact most bicycles are really not designed for year round use. The first thing that begins to be taxed is the drivetrain. Swap out the standard metal chain for a synthetic belt and you have made great strides forward. But the hubs and brakes will need to be reconsidered to make these vehicles truly roadworthy in winter.

By the time you have a bike outfitted in such a manner to be maintenance free in all-weather conditions you have something that only the affluent can afford. And you still have not addressed the question of clothing which is critical if you plan to avoid hypothermia while exercising in the raw cold. And while we are at it you have to find some way to eliminate completely the flat tires that plague urban cyclists.

Not spells buzzkill like having to pull off the roadway to tend to a flat tire in subzero temperatures. Cars on the other hand get flats too, but you can always wait for the tow truck in the relative warmth and safety of the vehicle. That option is not afforded the bike commuter.

Given the opportunity to work online during the winter most bicycle commuters would have to be masochists to opt for riding into the office when they have an inviting study just down the hallway from their bedrooms.