On the 13nd of November, the Netherlands’ first sustainable parking garage opened. Taking the concept of sustainability in its broadest meaning, the facility is not just operating at zero energy emissions, but has also been constructed in a recycling-friendly way. In light of the monumental transformation that is about to reshape the car market, the ease with which the facility’s components can be reused might turn out to be its most valuable feature.
Despite the exorbitant fees that parking companies seem to effortlessly be able to charge, entering the car parking business in 2017 is a tricky endeavor. Consider the ultimate cornerstone of the business model: the pool of cars standing idle while their owners are out doing work, shopping, or going to the movies. There are good reasons to expect the quantity of idle cars to fall dramatically in the coming decade.
It is important to realize that the costs of a parking enterprise are more or less stable over time. No matter whether the offered parking spots are actually filled or not, the expenses of building the infrastructure, maintaining it, and having a security attendant guarding over the stalled vehicles remain unchanged. Furthermore, the total costs are, to a large extent, comprised of the upfront investment required to build the facility, especially in the case of a multi-storey car park. Once the massive building has been erected, operational costs are — compared to those — negligible. So whether or not the investment in the garage will be recouped is a matter of getting the people to park their car in it.
Until now, this has not been that hard. Most urban areas are drowning in cars, and their owners, desperate to get rid of them once they have reached their destination, are willing to pay up to $60 an hour (in downtown New York) for the service. Car parking in the USA alone is accounting for a revenue of around $10 billion annually.
The problem for car park owners is that things are about to change in the automobile market. First of all, there is the shift in drive-trains, going from fossil fuel reliant internal combustion engines to electric motors, which are substantially more energy efficient and can be made emission free more easily by powering them with renewably-generated electricity. This rEVolution in itself doesn’t yet form much of a threat to the car parking companies: people will still own the same number of cars, will use them as much as they did before, and will thus want to park them. If anything, the electrification of road traffic should even be welcomed by the car parking business. As more and more cities are proposing or even adopting legislation to ban cars out of their streets, and many of them put strenuous efforts in increasing the appeal of public transportation to curb air pollution, a steady decrease of urban road travel can only be prevented when cars become much cleaner than they are today.
The transformation that car park owners should carefully consider, is therefore not electrification, but the other pillar of the future of mobility: autonomy. The development of self-driving cars follows a significantly more aggressive timeline than most people realize, with many car manufacturers already offering autonomous features, while having test-cars on the road with profoundly more sophisticated self-driving capabilities. It is not clear when fully autonomous cars that can emulate human drivers in any traffic situation will become available to customers, but it is surely not going to take more than 5 years. Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has indicated he thinks his company will be able to offer fully autonomous cars by the end of 2019, and although Musk’s timelines tend to be somewhat too optimistic, his statement signifies rapid progress. With billions of dollars now being spent on research and development, it will not be long before the steering wheels will disappear and drivers become passengers.
This transformation will have vast influences on everything that is even remotely related to road mobility, including car parking. Taxis will no longer need drivers, which means the price of taking a taxi ride will dive down. Furthermore, when taxis gain in popularity, so many more of them will be around that waiting times will fall drastically too, further fostering their popularity. If the cost per driven mile for taking a taxi falls to or even below the amount you pay when driving your own car, would you still buy an automobile? Some people still would, but certainly car sales will decline.
But dwindling car ownership is just one side of the parking business’ problem. The other is that a great share of the cars that are still there, are no longer in need of a parking spot when their owners are not using them. Fully self-driving cars allows for mobility systems in which car owners can earn extra cash by having their four-wheelers serving as taxis while they are not using them themselves, vastly reducing the amount of cars that will be standing idle at any given point. With fewer cars being on the road, the parking business is to experience a dramatic fall in demand in the coming decade.
This goes back to the sustainable parking garage that just opened in the Netherlands. Being energy neutral thanks to the placement of 400 solar panels on the roof, the facility’s operational carbon footprint is virtually zero, but a pivotal feature is that the building itself can easily be deconstructed. Being erected out of myriad separate components, with wooden elements covering the sides, the parking garage can relatively simply be broken down. Thanks to the modular design, the building materials could then be used for other construction projects.
Today, building a new parking garage is not necessarily a pointless enterprise. With a booming global economy, there are plenty of places where demand for parking spots is on the rise and a multi-level parking facility would be a stress-relief for hundreds of commuters trying to quickly park their car in the morning. The sustainable parking garage discussed above is a perfect example. Being located next to the train station Driebergen-Zeist in the middle of the Netherlands, the facility will be solving a serious parking spot shortage. However, these facilities might no longer be needed ten years from now, which is why from an economic and ecological perspective, it is paramount that these facilities can easily be recycled or refitted for other purposes. This will save the owners a good deal of their investment, as it turns stranded assets into valuable construction components, and lowers construction and demolition greenhouse gas emissions. Ultimately, it makes for a great economic and ecologic value proposition to erect every new building in a recyclable-friendly way, but in the case of facilities that might not last for long, it might be decisive in saving the owner from bankruptcy.
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