The Future of Parking in an Era of Car-Sharing

Services like Uber and Zipcar could radically change city streets.
April 2015
One Car2Go can replace several private vehicles. (Flickr/ATMTX)
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

Could Uber, Lyft and Zipcar, so-called car-sharing services, be the end of parking requirements as we know them?

Parking requirements, of course, are the bane of almost every urban district. These areas want to be lively, walkable and accessible, but regulations requiring huge amounts of parking undermine those goals. The basic problem is that the throngs of people who arrive to a trendy urban district bring their cars. And even though we use cars to take us almost everywhere we go in the U.S., the cars themselves are parked almost all the time, taking up a lot of space.

These car-sharing services have the potential to change all of our assumptions about how parking works. Yes, people want and need convenient and immediate access to cars at any time. But the traditional approach to parking supposes that what people want is convenient and immediate access to one car that they own. Car-sharing services operate under the theory that it doesn’t matter which car people travel in, so long as one is available immediately. And because most people travel only intermittently, then the same car, with or without a driver, can be used over and over and over again to transport people around. That’s how car-sharing services make money, by keeping cars on the road rather than in a parking lot.

In recent years, urban planners have thought a great deal about how these services affect travel. But they haven’t thought too much about how they affect parking. In the case of a driver-led service like Uber, the impact is obvious: The cars are never parked, because drivers don’t make any money unless the cars are in motion. So every Uber ride means one less car in the parking lot. For a service like Zipcar or Car2Go, the cars -- driven by the renters themselves -- are obviously still parked, just not as much as private cars. Not a lot of research has been done on whether car-sharing will reduce the need for parking in cities, but what little has been conducted so far suggests that one Zipcar or Car2Go takes the place of several individual vehicles and often dampens the desire of urban dwellers to buy their own cars in the first place. All of which means less demand for parking, especially in the urban districts where these services thrive.

Of course, the push to provide more parking in urban districts isn’t always evidence-based or rational. Frequently, it’s driven by nearby residents who are fearful that more people will mean more traffic in their neighborhood and therefore want far more parking than necessary in order to make sure that there are never any spillover problems. But if car-sharing services continue to gain in popularity, our whole framework for urban parking will be turned upside down. Yes, people will still come and go in cars. But they won’t need to be parked as much or for as long. That should mean more real estate available for things that matter.