Kempner: Will self-driving cars give parking lots the boot?


Jerry Skillett, CEO of one of the nation’s biggest parking companies, should be rolled up in a fetal position under a table.

Self-driving cars are coming, and according to plenty of urbanists, futurists and transportation engineers, Skillett’s industry is going to be decimated.

All those parking lots close to office towers, malls and intown restaurants? Don’t need most of them.

Autonomous cars are going to drop us off — at times, possibly, in carpooling groups — and then scurry off to pick up other people or to park themselves in decks a mile or two away or maybe back to our home driveways, until we beckon them.

Many of the parking lots we pass every day will go unused and be turned into offices, homes, stores and parks. (In downtown Atlanta alone that’s 500 acres, or more than one-fifth of the central business district.)

Or so the thinking goes.

Skillett laughed when I mentioned this possible future. He runs New York-based Citizens Parking, which owns Lanier Parking, perhaps metro Atlanta’s biggest parking operator. And he contends plenty of forecasters have got consumer behavior all wrong when it comes to self-driving cars.

“They are not understanding why people own cars in the first place,” Skillett told me. It’s about status and control and freedom.

“People don’t like to ride with each other.”

Carpooling has been around for years, but he said even in Manhattan, 90 percent of his customers pull into pricey spaces alone. He predicts cars that drive themselves won’t change that.

Even if people continue to take their own cars alone, they won’t feel comfortable sending their expensive self-driving vehicles off to some distant parking lot, Skillett said. Instead, he said they’ll be more comfortable keeping it close in lots like his and those of his rivals, where they’ll know they can get to it quick.

Apparently, many drivers aren’t like me. They shop for parking based largely on proximity more than price. His company found that whether patrons valet park or fetch their cars themselves, their time tolerance maxes out at about seven minutes.

And in our hustle bustle world, Skillett predicts we’ll only get more antsy when it comes to time.

Self-driving cars won’t cut into the amount of parking spaces needed, he said.

“It’s not going to affect parking in my lifetime,” he told me. He’s 57 and looks lean, so I’m betting he’s got a lot of miles left in him.

‘Just confused’

“He’s just confused,” concluded Kara Kockelman, a University of Texas engineering professor who has focused on the potential effects of self-driving vehicles.

It may be 25 years or more before there’s widespread use of vehicles that reliably and safely drive themselves without anyone in them, she told me. (In other words, that can be trusted to drive off to park themselves.)

But change is coming, and it’s going to mess with the parking business, she said.

She said the most likely shift will be to fleet owners of expensive, self-driving ride-sharing vehicles (kind of like Uber or Lyft or taxis).

Each car in a fleet of so-called shared autonomous vehicles could take the place of eight privately owned cars. Demand for parking spaces could be cut by 85 percent, she said.

So if she were in the parking industry, Kockelman said, she’d be changing her business model. Design parking decks to be easily converted into something else (condos, offices, shops, whatever). Look to sell some lots in the next few years, she said. Partner with likely owners of fleets of vehicles.

We’ve always had a funny relationship with parking. Who isn’t thrilled to nab a roomy, perfectly situated spot on a rainy day? But only a parking mogul likes the view of most garages.

A deader city?

“The more space parking consumes, the deader a city is,” said Tim Keane, the city of Atlanta’s planning and community development commissioner.

He predicts self-driving vehicles won’t eliminate congestion or all parking lots. But he wants rules that put parameters on the new technology. “The market change is going to have to respond to less parking in the city.”

Local governments used to put heavy reliance on requiring parking with new developments. Now, there are no such requirements in downtown Atlanta and some other parts of the city. And Keane is eyeing a future with caps on parking additions.

Kockelman envisions governments eventually restricting private owners of self-driving cars, maybe banning all but fleet cars in downtowns or restricting human-less cars from being sent off to park themselves.

For now, big parking is everywhere. Drive along the Downtown Connector and check out how much of the view is of parking buildings. What the heck are we going to do with them all?

And will all that additional space flood the market and cut into property values?

Advocates see another picture: a way to grow the city without making gridlock worse. Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown advocacy organization, generally wants more buildings for people and less space for cars, said Jennifer Ball, CAP’s vice president for planning and economic development.

Big in the ‘burbs

Parking obviously isn’t just an intown issue. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has more than 30,000 spaces and plans big deck additions. Burbs like Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton and DeKalb have their own parking expanses. And a spate of Gwinnett town centers are planning new decks.

Meanwhile, Skillett, the parking CEO, said smarter cars and navigation systems are already paying off for his company.

Travelers increasingly are planning in advance where they’ll park at the end of trips. Skillett told me that after the Waze traffic navigation app highlighted his company’s garages on Manhattan trips, 30 percent of users switched from their original destination to his facilities.

So he’s betting that big parking companies like his that embrace technology, crunch data and partner with tech and automotive businesses will become choice locations not only for drivers but for their self-driving car systems.

“It’s fantastic,” he said.

Contemplate that: Our cars helping to steer our purchasing decisions.

Parking as a measure of hiring, economy

Consumers are spending more this year, but many employers have paused their hiring since the presidential election.

Or so says the CEO of one of the nation’s biggest parking operators, who predicts employment growth will return over the next six months or so.

Investors and others search for all kinds of measures of the nation’s well being.

Jerry Skillett, the CEO of New York-based Citizens Parking, which also owns Lanier Parking in Atlanta, said the growth of parking at retail establishments, entertainment hubs and restaurants where the company operates around the nation convinces him that consumers continue to spend more.

But he said he suspects many employers have paused their hiring because in office areas the number of monthly parkers (they have hundreds of thousands) “has been very flat” since the election, following three years of growth.

Employers “have pushed their budget out just a little bit,” Skillett said.

“We would expect the second and third quarters of this year will be very good.”



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