Imagine a world without carparks!

Wed Oct 10 2016 Michael McQueen

A little while back I had lunch with one of the most switched on business leaders I have met in recent times. The man in question has had a long and distinguished career and yet has managed to stay below the radar – he is far less famous than he ought to be.

Of all the businesses this man has an ownership stake in, it was his 50% shareholding in one of Australia’s largest parking station businesses that had led him to reach out to me. He had come across my research into autonomous cars and the disruptive impact they are likely to have a wide range of industries ranging from auto insurance to freight logistics and car hire. However, it was their impact on carparks that he was naturally most interested in.

Getting straight to the point, a number of minutes into our lunch he simply asked; “When do you think I should get out of the car parking business.”

Taken aback but this candid and forthright question, I stumbled through an answer and assured him he probably has 5-7 years before any genuine threat emerges.

On the way back to my office following lunch, I gave some more thought to the question he had asked and began to wonder just how long it will be before parking our cars genuinely becomes a thing of the past. With Ford Motor Company’s stated goal of having its first vehicle with no steering wheel rolling off production lines by 2021, there is little doubt that self-driving cars will be on our roads before we know it.

In the age of self-driving cars, there will likely be little or no need to park our vehicles – they’ll simply drop us at a desired destination and then return home until we’re ready to be picked up. Alternatively, they may drop us off and enter a fleet of other driverless vehicles ferrying people around and earning us money Uber-style while we’re at work, dinner or the movies.

Make no doubt about it: carparks will be something our grandchildren will ask about in the decades to come with a degree of fascination and bemusement.

So if we let our minds expand to the possibility of a world without carparks, what would the implications be?

On a recent visit to Chicago, a particular set of towers caught my attention as I wandered around the downtown area considering this reality.

Known affectionately as the Jetson Towers, the Marina Towers (pictured) were built in 1964 and were made famous by the 1980 movie “The Hunter” featuring Steve McQueen (sadly, no relation of mine).

What is particularly unusual about the Marina Towers is the fact that the first 13 levels of these prime real estate buildings in downtown waterfront Chicago is dedicated to parking vehicles. Think of that: some of the most valuable real estate in Chicago (if not north America) is being taken up by 26 levels of car parks that feature breathtaking and completely wasted views.

In a world without a need for carparks, imagine what this floor space could be transformed into. Further still, next time you’re wandering around in a major CBD, pay attention to just how much space is dedicated to storing our vehicles (often at an eye-watering price). Most city blocks feature at least one multi-level parking facility and sometimes more.

In 20-years’ time, could it be possible that all this space will be re-purposed? If so, what would this mean for the world of urban planning and commercial real estate?

Better yet, imagine how much strategically critical space at hospitals, airports and schools/universities could be freed up for much more valuable uses. Working with a group of hospital administrators recently, this one notion got them salivating more than any other – after all, one of the key resources constraints for most hospitals is available land/space.

While the age of driverless cars will provide amazing opportunities for some businesses and industries, it will represent an existential threat to many more. But regardless, a world without carparks is not as far off as many of us imagine.