Portland Is Building Parking For Cars That Won’t Ever Park

Within a matter of days, Ford has announced plans to mass produce fully-autonomous vehicles by 2021, Uber said it would be debuting (semi) self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, and folks in Singapore started taking rides in robot taxi cabs. Simultaneously, Portland plans to renovate a public parking garage for $25 million and build a 425 stall parking garage next to a Rose Quarter light rail station.

A google self driving car.

Autonomous vehicles are coming. The technology is here, the industry players are lining up, and given their track records with disruptive technology (see: Uber, AirBnB, Tesla Autopilot) our cities are unlikely to stop driverless cars from operating on our streets. But rather than crafting regulations to ensure that this technology is applied to solve transportation and planning problems, Portland is planning to spend millions of dollars to build more garages for conventional automobiles.

The threat of robot cars making things worse is real. It won’t do much good for us to trade privately owned single occupancy vehicles (SOV) that sit idle in parking stalls 98% of the time for privately owned SOV that sit idle in traffic 98% of the time. There are people making great arguments about what we should do to prevent a worst-case-scenario and Portland is lucky to have a planning commissioner, Chris Smith, who is pushing for policy about self-driving cars to be included in the upcoming Transportation System Plan.

The End of Parking?

While the virtues of autonomous cars and the timelines for their arrival are still open for debate, it is increasingly acknowledged that self-driving vehicles will greatly diminish demand for on-site parking in most areas with even a moderate amount of commercial or residential density. Wasting valuable land and money on parking stalls (already a bad idea) will be completely impractical once cars can park themselves in the hinterlands or, more likely, spend the entire day moving people and goods.

Empty Parking Garage

The possibilities for repurposing on-street and surface lot parking are exciting. Surface lots can be re-developed into new buildings. On street parking can be removed and replaced with bike lanes, parklets, bus rapid transit (BRT), or even additional lanes for car traffic. The curb lane is a massive public asset, worth billions of dollars in a mid-size city and how we’ll use it in a post-parking world is an exciting thought exercise.

Like a banana slicer or a butter cutter, a parking structure is, generally, only good for one thing.

Parking garages, however, are single-purpose structures. Like a banana slicer or a butter cutter, a parking structure is, generally, only good for one thing. Standalone parking garages can be torn down and housing or offices can take its place, but the parking built beneath or within a building is single-use space we will be stuck with for generations.

We can see the end of parking demand as we know it and it’s time to stop building parking for future generations; they won’t be needing it.

There’s Money For Parking But Not For Housing

In the past month Portland officials have committed over $40 million dollars to publicly financed parking garage projects and the Portland Development Commission (PDC) is just getting started. These projects are simultaneously in opposition to the city’s own mode split and climate action goals and foolhardy investments.

But why must we ask voters to pay for housing while we pay for parking garages with available funds?

As we have covered, the PDC is committing $18 million dollars to build a 425 stall parking garage as part of the convention center hotel project which PDC claims will be profitable for decades to come. Will visitors to Portland in 2025 rent cars and personally drive them to a hotel which is immediately adjacent to the MAX line? Only in the most dystopian of futures.

Parking garage at SW 10th and Yamhill

SW 10th and Yamhill Garage

Perhaps even more foolish is a plan to renovate the SmartPark garage on SW 10th and SW Yamhill. This project, which will cost $25 million dollars is said to be necessary because the building is old and the ground floor retail is lacking in modern amenities. It is irresponsible to spend this much on a parking garage, which will last many decades, in the heart of downtown Portland just as we begin a transition into a very different era of transportation. At the very least, if the city must rebuild this garage, then housing or office space should be built on top of it.  A city that is moving forward in 2016 doesn’t just replace an old parking garage with a new one. It’s shameful.

Our city council is asking us to commit $250 million dollars in new property taxes to build affordable housing. This is a critical need and a worthy ask. But why must we ask voters to pay for housing while we pay for parking garages with available funds? Isn’t this backwards?

Voters should be asked if they want to raise taxes to rebuild a parking garage and city council should use those dollars to build affordable housing. City Council should direct PDC to abandon its bizarre parking garage strategy and, instead, to look to affordable housing as a long term investment.


3 Responses to “Portland Is Building Parking For Cars That Won’t Ever Park

  • there was a time when Portland’s zoning code required that parking structures be built with flat floors and adequate headroom for future conversion. Don’t know whether it is still required.

    • Good question, Rick. I assume that means for standalone structures only? If it is still required then the PDC convention center hotel would have to be convertible.

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