The route connecting the Hill to the downtown business district puts in full view Harrisburg’s best assets and most glaring eyesores. The Susquehanna River, the downtown skyline and the glittering Capitol dome all inhabit the same panorama as industrial blight on Cameron Street and the gaping wall collapse at the McFarland apartments.
And then, smack-dab in the middle of it all—acres and acres of parking.
Between garages, surface lots and metered curbsides, Harrisburg has more than 24,000 parking spaces in its central business district alone. Five years ago, these spaces gave Harrisburg a ticket out of debt and bankruptcy, when they were leased to a private operator as part of a massive debt restructuring transaction.
That deal, which was underwritten by county and state taxpayers, carries a 40-year repayment schedule and expires in 2054. Far sooner than that, however, it’s possible many of Harrisburg’s parking spots won’t need to exist.
In the not-too-distant future, the emergence of autonomous vehicles (AV) promises to drastically reshape the way people work, travel and even park their cars. Vehicles controlled by artificial intelligence are already being deployed in industrial fleets, and experts expect they will be the country’s primary means of transport by 2040. When that point comes, it will bring big changes for American cities.
“When you look back at the early 2000s, AVs barely made it hundreds of feet,” said Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions. “In the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve moved from autonomous vehicles being science fiction to fact. The vast changes we’re seeing are happening exponentially.”
Self-driving cars have the potential to upend all sectors of the economy, well beyond the transportation and automotive industries. AV evangelists say that autonomous driving will reduce carbon consumption, eliminate vehicle-related accidents and deaths, and encourage new models of car ownership, such as pay-per-use sharing or ride-hailing systems.
Skeptics say that a less onerous car rides will encourage people to spend more time on the road, increasing congestion and accelerating suburban sprawl. Millions of jobs in the trucking and transportation sectors will likely be lost to autonomous technology.
As transportation experts across the country prepare for autonomous vehicles to dramatically alter demands on public infrastructure, many agree on one thing: AVs could make parking lots and garages a thing of the past.
“There is strong evidence to suggest that current parking models could become obsolete in 20 years, if not sooner,” said Susan Shaheen, an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley and co-director of its Transportation Sustainability Research Center.
Shaheen explained that some curbside space still will be needed to dock, fuel or maintain AVs between trips. But according to Carnegie Mellon University public policy professor Rick Stafford, “when you take the driver out from behind that wheel, that car doesn’t have to stop and park somewhere.” Most passengers who reach a destination by autonomous vehicle will likely send it to park on its own, he said.
Since passengers won’t need to enter or exit their car from a parking space, autonomous vehicles can squeeze into tighter spots. Transportation experts also assume that driverless technology will invigorate ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft, which are already piloting AV programs. It’s easy to envision private fleets of autonomous vehicles running in near-constant motion, stopping only to refuel or pick up passengers.
As a result, many experts expect that the autonomous revolution will greatly reduce the amount of real estate currently consumed by parking.
Lot of Concern
Researchers say there are as many as 2 billion parking spaces across the United States, and estimates vary for how many will remain in a fully autonomous future.
A report by the Urban Land Institute and Green Street Advisors said that parking needs could plummet by at least 50 percent as a result of autonomous technology. The global consulting company McKinsey Advisors put it differently, projecting that AVs could free up 5.6 billion square acres of parking real estate—an area larger than the state of Delaware.
Many planners are ready to say good riddance to unsightly garages and sprawling surface lots, which gobble up valuable real estate and increase congestion on city streets. But most cities—Harrisburg included—also depend on parking revenues to balance their budgets.
“We’re trying to project the exact impact, but our general hypothesis is that parking [revenues] that exist now in cities are likely to diminish,” Stafford said. “That raises a lot of concern from a city’s standpoint.”
A national analysis by Governing Magazine, which covers local and state public policy across the country, found that the largest 25 cities in the United States took in a combined $2.8 billion from parking revenue and enforcement in 2016. Small jurisdictions were more significantly reliant on vehicle revenues than large cities.
Unlike most of its peer cities, however, Harrisburg doesn’t have much say in how its parking assets are managed. The transaction it entered in 2013 calls for revenue from the parking system to consistently increase over its 40-year lease. Each year, these revenues are distributed to bondholders and then split among five different entities: the city of Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority and Standard Parking (through its asset manager PK Harris and parent company Trimont).
According to Larry Cohen, director of the Lancaster Parking Authority and a member of the board of directors of the International Parking Institute, the presence of so many stakeholders, all with a valid claim to proceeds from the parking system, makes the burden of finances in Harrisburg “somewhat unique” among municipal parking systems across the country.
Could a massive disruption to the parking industry make it untenable?
Parking professionals inter-viewed for this story said that autonomous vehicle technology hadn’t permeated their industry five years ago, when the terms of Harrisburg’s parking transaction were being hashed out.
Most now agree that their industry is in for a big change when autonomous technology becomes mainstream. But Albert Federico, a Swarthmore-based parking consultant, estimates that the industry has another decade before it will have to make serious predictions about future demand for parking.
“There are always forces that could be disruptive, what matters is how nimble can the industry be to adapt,” he said. “You have to be aware of potential disruptors, but on some level this is an essential public service and you need to err on the side of caution.”
Cohen said that 40 years is a long time to be locked into terms of any lease agreement, especially one that depends on optimistic budget projections. As a result, the viability of Harrisburg’s parking system may depend on its stakeholders’ willingness to revisit their agreement at some point in the future.
The operator at the top of the Harrisburg’s parking heap is Trimont, an international bond management firm. John Gass, the Atlanta-based manager for Harrisburg’s system, declined to comment for this story. Mayor Eric Papenfuse said that changes in the transportation industry do create concern for the bond deal, but declined to dwell too much on specifics.
“It would all be very theoretical at this stage, but it’s certainly something to think about,” Papenfuse said.
Since projections are still speculative, there’s not much Harrisburg’s operators can do but wait for more data to inform planning decisions. But city officials can future-proof any new infrastructure, such as parking garages, to prevent them from becoming obsolete in 20 years’ time.
For instance, Harrisburg leaders say they would welcome the construction of a parking garage near the site of the new federal courthouse at 6th and Reily Streets in Midtown Harrisburg, which is scheduled for completion in 2021. The $193 million project is expected to migrate 200 jobs and attract hundreds of patrons to a mostly residential neighborhood, a volume sure to strain the nearby supply of street parking.
Papenfuse said in December that he hopes a private developer will swoop in to meet the anticipated demand for parking spots. Harrisburg officials could follow the lead of the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, which is requiring the developer of a new parking garage to show that its design can accommodate adaptive reuse.
“If you’re going to build parking infrastructure now, build it so it can be something other than a parking garage some time in its life cycle,” said Mike Connor, a parking consultant who formerly managed the parking program in Arlington County, Va.
Architects and designers are scheming ways to turn existing parking garages into offices, apartments, and mixed-use spaces, he said, but traditional garage design makes many reuse options impossible.
Policy makers can prepare to replace revenue that could be lost when current parking models become obsolete. Since airports have already seen ride-sharing services chip away at their parking proceeds, many have started collecting fees from Uber and Lyft for every curbside pick-up and drop off at their terminals. Stafford said that could be a policy template for municipalities that want to monetize curbside real estate. Since driverless cars could also jeopardize state liquid fuels taxes, he said, many states may start to consider a shift to Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) taxes instead.
Even as they stare down a potential hit to their bottom line, many planners and engineers welcome any disruption that allows cars to cede space to humans. Freed from demands for parking, city leaders can widen sidewalks, plant greenery, or reclaim dank parking garages as spaces for commerce and housing. That should be especially good news to a city like Harrisburg, which plans to invest millions of dollars in pedestrian improvements in 2019.
“I do think that we’re moving towards a future that in many ways reflects the past, before vehicles overtook cities,” Rainwater said. “There will definitely be growing pains, as there is with any new technology, but I can’t think of a mayor who is not excited by all the great changes happening in mobility nationwide. I think we’re in a renaissance.”