Will self-driving cars kill parking?

Some people have postulated that autonomous ridesharing cars will never need to park and cities of the future will not need street parking, parking lots or parking garages. But parking is far from dead. In fact, the $100 billion market may be poised to grow.

We’ve heard from parking startup founders that many Silicon Valley investors have rejected parking as a thing of the past, rallying around alternatives — for example, investing more than $100 million in valet parking startups that didn’t pan out. Even these parking investments are a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $80 billion invested in autonomous vehicles in just the past three years.

In these peoples’ minds, autonomous cars will simply whisk us off to our destination, then pick up another passenger, collect their groceries from Draeger’s, or simply spin around in circles waiting to pick them up again. “Autonomy is nigh, and the opportunities are endless, but parking is not one of them,” they ponder as they wait for their Tesla Model 3 to be delivered.

Sarcasm aside, parking can play a positive role in our cities today and tomorrow.

Reducing street parking for good

Parking is not dead, but maybe on-street parking should be. Dockless, free-floating, shared personal mobility devices (scooters, bicycles and more) have been dumped on cities by the likes of Bird, LimeBike and Spin. San Francisco has taken actions to “clean up” these eyesores that crowd sidewalks, with City Attorney Dennis Herrera issuing these companies cease-and-desist orders for “creating a public nuisance on the city’s streets and sidewalks.”

Voices from the transportation community were quick to point out the irony of these actions. They were quick to describe personal vehicles as dockless, free-floating, unshared personal mobility devices that are perfectly acceptable eyesores that crowd already congesting roadways.

And maybe they have a point. Off-street parking is widely available in cities, but largely underutilized. So why do we still have on-street parking? Part of the reason has been a lack of information, and at great cost. An IBM survey suggests that parking searches take between 13-32 minutes, account for up to 30 percent of traffic and produce harmful emissions. And think of the wasted gas. In today’s information age, is information a good excuse?

Between parking, ridesharing and additional lanes, some folks have cited an impending battleground for the curb.

Admittedly less sexy than autonomous cars, parking technology companies that provide real-time parking availability in off-street garages are solving these costly search problems. For scale, MIT professor Eran Ben-Joseph estimates there are 800 million surface parking spaces in the United States and cover up to one-third of downtown land area in some cities. Increased utilization of private and municipal garages should push local governments to start removing on-street parking. This opportunity is huge for many densely populated cities.

As long as on-street parking is available, people will use it. If governments move to abandon on-street parking, then they — alongside entrepreneurs and innovators — can use the new space for more productive uses.


What are those more productive use cases? One is obviously more traffic lanes to improve throughput in our congested cities. Another would be to expand bike (or shall I say, personal mobility device) lanes or even sidewalks to encourage safe pedestrian traffic. Another would be dedicated pick-up and drop-off lanes for ridesharing companies. A dedicated pick-up and drop-off curbside for ridesharing could reduce some of the congestion it may be creating in cities through ad hoc methods today. Lyft* has even proposed what a walkable, lower-congestion Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles could look like in the future.

Perhaps the cities could even make up for lost parking revenue by introducing usage fees for personal mobility devices that are free floating, or ridesharing companies that use the curbside lane.

Between parking, ridesharing and additional lanes, some folks have cited an impending battleground for the curb. It is a battle that parking should probably lose.


Although I would argue that billionaire investors have the picture wrong in their head, autonomous vehicles will arrive — eventually. The idea here is that autonomous cars will operate constantly, delivering passengers here, there and everywhere all day, and that the need for parking will diminish. Maybe so.

However, returning to the valet parking companies mentioned above, Zirx pivoted to Stratim Systems because they saw that there was a need to provide fleet management service for these free-floating car-share services. The same need will exist for autonomous vehicles. They will need to be refueled and/or recharged. They will need to have their interiors cleaned. They will need to have their sensors calibrated and cleaned. They will need to be repaired and maintained. Where will this happen?

Perhaps that is the future of off-street garages, and these new revenue streams are where the $100 billion market may be poised to grow. The technology-forward garages that can attract these new mobility business models by providing value-added services will be well-positioned for the ridesharing and car-sharing fleets of today and the autonomous fleets tomorrow.

The road ahead

Technology companies working with automakers, transportation network companies and fleet managers make it easy to reserve off-street parking today. They are also positioned for the future of autonomous driving tomorrow. An increase in garage utilization should diminish the need to have on-street parking, which would open up real estate for more productive use. Eventually ridesharing and autonomous fleets may cut into the parking market, but those technology-forward parking garages, and even refueling stations of today, will be able to deliver value-added services, like cashless payment, charging stations and fleet management, to their business models.

*Disclosure: Autotech Ventures is an investor in Lyft.