Autonomous Cars May Deliver More Public Parks

by Jack Sommer

Across the world, more and more nature and parks are being integrated into urban environments. City governments are recognizing the opportunities to convert outdated, vacant infrastructure into green spaces to provide residents and visitors a refreshing break from the concrete buildings and rush of the urban lifestyle. Recent discussion about the rise of automated vehicle transportation and decreased car ownership has reignited this idea of more park conversions from city infrastructure. The theory of this being that with driverless cars you'll need less parking spaces and roads, so you are able to use that space to create parks.

In a recent article by Lyft co-founder John Zimmer, he writes about this possible new revolution of transportation and ride sharing. "Most of us have grown up in cities built around the automobile, but imagine for a minute, what our world could look like if we found a way to take most of these cars off the road," he says. "It's a world where can construct new housing and small businesses on parking lots across the country — or turn them into green spaces and parks. That's a world built around people, not cars."

This may happen sooner than people may think, but still won't be immediate. Zimmer estimates that private car ownership will be nearing its end in major U.S. cities by 2025. Elon Musk, in a more moderate approach (a rare attribute for him) stated in his Master Plan, Part Deux that he thinks people will still own cars - in his case, Tesla's of course - but will rent them out to people. No matter who you ask, however, anyone paying attention to the automotive industry would be blind to dismiss the reality of how Uber and Lyft have taken over how people now like getting around in big cities.

This would be a smart and logical improvement from cars just sitting around 96% of the time doing nothing (currently, it's been reported that the average vehicle is only in use 4% of the time). It won't be an easy or quick transition to make, however. Millennials might not be interested in owning cars from here on out, but it will be a tougher battle for people already used to owning cars to give then up. Regardless of whether it makes financial sense or not, we grow intense attachments to our cars and for many it represents a sense of freedom. 

Relinquishing one kind of freedom, however, could also lead to another type of liberty...

In this scenario, parking lots would essentially be the latest type of a public space that was once built for a method of transportation and then become not as necessary and (eventually) abandoned before being used in a new purpose for a park or green space. Just look at one of the most famous examples of The High Line in New York, which used abandoned elevated train tracks in downtown Manhattan and converted them into one of the cities popular tourist and local destinations. Or its predecessor in Paris, a three mile park walkway over century-old train tracks called The Promenade Plantèe (both pictured above). 

The High Line also physically connects on its North end in with an area being built by the name of Hudson Yards, a new community of residential and office buildings that is the largest private real estate development in the history of the United States. By completion in 2025, the project will add more than almost 30 million square feet of office, retail, and housing with a total of approximately 125,000 people either working, living, or visiting there per day. The area it's being built over is the West Side Yard, a rail yard that's been used for years to store commuter rail trains operated by the Long Island Rail Road. Between parking lots and abandoned train tracks, the opportunities for shifting our landscapes are out there just waiting to be converted.

Another urban renewal example is the neighborhood of Buckhead in Atlanta, which was disrupted in the 1990s by being built around cars instead of people. It started a disconnect amongst different sections of the area that has remained since the highway was built. In the three images above, you can see the proposed raised park/bridge called Buckhead Park that is planned to be built there to help re-shape the neighborhood and restore the community connectivity by allowing that access from one part of town to the other and offering a new way to see the city. The park would be built on top of the highway, weaving above and around it, and more easily connected to the tall office buildings surrounding it. So while it's not completely the same situation as abandoned parking lots or train tracks being transformed, it still centers around that idea of taking an existing public transportation infrastructure and using it as part of a way to transform it into a more relevant, people-focused way.

Taking it a step further than Buckhead, a new mixture of a park and bridge in London is simply starting from scratch. Appropriately titled "The Garden Bridge," it will go over The Thames River, the main water passageway of the city that is a big source of transportation in itself, and connect Northern and Southern areas of the city. The bridge will provide a new refreshing way - exempt from cars and instead filled with trees and plants - for pedestrians to cross the river. Currently it's slated for a 2018-19 opening and is planned to be always open, no matter the season. 

The changing facade of public space will undoubtedly incorporate a mix of all of these projects - some completely transforming existing places (The High Line), some adding on and adjusting around existing spaces (Buckhead in Atlanta), and some making something completely new (The Garden Bridge in London). However, if we want to be at our most efficient, it would be in our best interest try to use these places that aren't going to be providing function anymore - and we are starting to get better at it.

The examples above demonstrate a positive trend towards reclaiming or converting public spaces to become people-friendly amenities. Soon, parking lots will be one of the areas to take advantage of, especially as technology only continues to improve the aforementioned areas of driverless vehicles, ride sharing and getting rid of car ownership altogether. As we know in these big cities, every little bit helps to bring cities back to people instead of cars.