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The minimum parking problem for on-demand mobility

There is data to suggest that on-demand (OD) mobility services — such as Uber — are increasing vehicle kilometers traveled (i.e. causing greater traffic congestion) by inducing people away from public transit and other forms of urban mobility. This is potentially even more of an issue right now with most urban transit agencies looking at massive budget shortfalls.

But there’s potentially another way to look at this problem. A recent study led by Dániel Kondor of the MIT Senseable City Lab has looked at not only vehicle kilometers traveled but also something that the team calls the “minimum parking problem.” What is the minimum amount of parking that you need assuming a world with more on-demand mobility, and eventually autonomous vehicles?

To try and answer this problem the researchers looked at the small city-state of Singapore. With a population of about 5.6 million people and somewhere around 1 million vehicles, Singapore actually has one of the lowest number of private vehicles per capita in the developed world. Even still, it has some 1.37 million parking spaces taking up valuable room.

What the team found was that on-demand mobility could reduce parking infrastructure needs in Singapore by as much as 86%. This is the absolute minimum number, which would take the current estimate of 1.37 million spots down to about 189,000 — a significant reduction.

However, the tradeoff is that it could increase vehicle kilometers traveled by about 24%. Without ample parking, their model assumes that these on-demand vehicles would need to “deadhead” between trips. That is, drive around aimlessly while they wait for their next passenger. Demand isn’t usually neat and tidy.

However, it’s worth noting that the above percentage increase assumes that if people were instead driving themselves around that they always found a parking spot as soon as they arrived at their destination. This, as we all know, is not often the case, and so this increase is probably a worst case scenario.

Nevertheless, the team did also find that a 57% reduction in parking could be achieved with only a modest 1.3% increase in vehicle kilometers traveled. This, to me, is meaningful because it says that you could, in theory, cut parking supply in at least half and not much would happen in the way of traffic congestion.

It would, however, free up a bunch of space for things like bicycle lanes, green space, and other valuable urban amenities. Now, if on-demand vehicles are pulling people away from transit, then maybe we’re no better off. But if the alternative is people driving and parking everywhere they go, then it would seem that there are much better uses for that space.

Photo by Jordi Moncasi on Unsplash

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