The diva of D.C. planning is peering down from outer space.
“Five to 10 years ago, if some aliens had taken a picture from space they would think our city was inhabited by steel creatures with gushy insides. Creatures that slept most of the time.”
Plenty of those dozing creatures remain, but the District’s chief planning visionary, Harriet Tregoning, says there are fewer now, and she foresees the day when a great many more will vanish.
“We are swimming in the tide of change, and people don’t even know it.”
There are 284,000 registered vehicles in the city, and hundreds of thousands more pour in every weekday. Most of the time those cars just sit while the people who are their “gushy insides” head into offices to work. The high-end estimate is that a car is parked 95 percent of its life. To allow all that snoozing, the District has about 400,000 parking spaces, 260,000 of them on the street and the rest in lots or underground garages.
The clamor for more spaces continues from some quarters of the city, beating back Tregoning’s drive this year to unhitch developers from mandates to create more parking when they put up new buildings.
But by the end of the 21st century, parking garages may go the way of the horse stables that were an omnipresent part of the city 100 years ago.
Parking isn’t going to matter so much as cars become less central to life in the urban centers — and particularly the District — where people want to live. The seedlings of this evolution from the car culture already have taken firm root. And a tipping point looms when that icon of freedom and prestige — a fine automobile — won’t seem so sexy any more.
“Private car ownership is probably in its waning years, at least in urban areas like D.C.,” said Karina Ricks, an urban planner and former associate director at the District Department of Transportation. “Where in generations past it was seen as a great liberator to have a car, to have freedom of movement, the new generation really views car ownership as more of a burden than a liberator.”
Mom and Dad’s generation may have sung along with the 1970 lament about paving paradise to put up a parking lot, but then they bought an SUV, moved to suburbia and used those parking spaces.
But the romance between their children and the auto has faltered. The biggest reason is the same one their lives are so different from their parents’: technology.
Cars once were the conduit to teenage friendship, but these kids have no need to gather at the mall or Burger King parking lot. They intersect in a constant text conversation, share moods and moments on Instagram, and tweet big thoughts and banal musings.
“Personal mobility has been replaced by personal mobility on the Web,” said Jim Wangers, a legendary marketer of the Pontiac GTO muscle car in 1964. “It’s a whole lot cheaper; it’s a whole lot more convenient. There’s sociability without the shortcomings.”
Technology also has made getting around easier. When is the next bus coming? Are bikes available at the Capital Bikeshare station around the corner? How close is the nearest short-hop rental car from Car2Go or Zipcar? Can Uber send a car around to get you? Just whip out your mobile phone. There’s an app for all of that. And if you still have that oh-so-20th-century yearning for a parking space, apps can help you with that, too. Shopping? Do it online, and virtually anything will be delivered to your doorstep.
“The automobile was this society’s greatest asset in 1965,” said Brian O’Looney, an urban design architect at the Silver Spring firm Torti Gallas and Partners. “General Motors was creating beautiful objects, and they were the most profitable company in the world. Today, the most profitable company in the world is Apple, and they are making beautiful objects, and they are providing connectivity to help people access boyfriends and girlfriends and all that. That’s a big change.”
The number of miles everyone drove in the District dropped by 7.7 percent in six years, and the number of households that don’t own a car has climbed to 38.5 percent. Two decades ago, two-thirds of the nation’s 18-year-olds had driver’s licenses. Now it’s a sliver more than half.
“You see declining demand in driving and car ownership,” said Cheryl Cort of the advocacy group Coalition for Smarter Growth, “and that’s going to translate into less demand for parking. It certainly won’t disappear, but technology supports better choices.”
For something in such common demand as parking, not a lot of research has been done to tease out the future relationship between cars and big cities.
“It’s a disaster,” O’Looney said. “There is no statistical basis for anything. There are no models to figure out how things work.”
Two things have been proved: A suburban office building needs three parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of floor space. On the second Saturday of December, a suburban mall needs four spaces per 1,000.
After that, it’s the blind leading the blind. Decades ago, a couple of cities set their standards and, in a vacuum of good data, others just followed.
“Nobody did research, and there is no research,” O’Looney said. “It’s the legacy of the planning standards of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.”
The District made a critical step that gave downtown a more elegant face than many cities. It limited the amount of floor space that can be constructed above ground on every piece of property. D.C. said that above-ground parking would count against that floor space, so a developer who was limited to 500,000 square feet could build that much office space, or build 300,000 square feet of office and a 200,000-square-foot parking garage.
Voila. District parking garages disappeared below street level.
“Most jurisdictions let you build parking garages that don’t count,” O’Looney said. “That’s part of why parking garages in downtown D.C. are extremely rare.”
If that’s a plus, O’Looney sees requirements that new parking be part of any new construction as an archaic and expensive obstacle without which downtown would flourish.
An above-ground space adds $15,000 to the cost of construction, O’Looney said, and an underground space costs as much as $30,000.
“It costs $15,000 to build a kitchen and $7,000 to build a bathroom, but then you’re requiring the same unit to have $50,000 worth of parking? It’s really stupid,” he said.
It has been a dilemma for the people who build office and apartment buildings, because they need one crystal ball to foresee what will come of the current evolution in demand and another one to get a glimmer of a more distant future.
“When you talk to developers, you hear, ‘We leased out everything right away, but we had a hard time moving the parking spaces,’ ” Cort said. “They want to provide all the parking that anybody wants to pay for, and what they’re finding is that a lot of people don’t want to own cars and don’t need to have a parking space.”
If demand continues to decline, can underground garages be converted to any other use?
“In some buildings it can’t really be anything else, because it’s not built level,” Tregoning said.
Tregoning’s desire to do away with parking requirements in outlying parts of town well served by Metro went down in flames this year when too many people objected. But she still hopes to get rid of them downtown and in neighborhoods snug into it.
With millennials flocking to live in the District or trendy Metro-linked suburbs such as Arlington, there are hints that baby boomers have begun selling that suburban three-bedroom with two-car garage to join the movement into town. Meanwhile, suburban bedroom communities that once were a spoke in the hub of Washington are becoming hubs in their own right. Witness the conversion of Tysons Corner into a genuine walkable, workable residential-office community.
Though on-demand cars and bicycles have relieved the need to own a car, an even more momentous change may be in the offing: autonomous vehicles. How soon will driver-less taxis pull up to collect and deliver people around downtown D.C.?
Before you scoff, recall that great-granddad was on horseback, and the apps that rule so much of life today have been around about a nanosecond. These days, change can happen overnight. Yes, you can expect to drive for the rest of your life, and your kids will drive, too, but historians one day may look back at this as a transitional era.
“You won’t need so much parking, because there won’t be so many private autos you need to store,” Ricks said. “There will be more sharing of the parking resource. If we’re really doing car-sharing, one vehicle can take the place of, on average, 16 vehicles, so we only need one-sixteenth of the parking places in the city.”
“We’ve in a very short time developed a reputation as a transportation innovator,” Tregoning said. “So anybody who has an idea is going to want to come here to try it.”
Her own vision is unwavering.
“Shared cars might be driven 95 percent of the time and parked 5 percent of the time. That’s clearly where we’re headed,” she said. “If the 95-5 happens, whole streets that now have parking on them won’t need it. We’ll have wider sidewalks. We’ll have more bike parking. It will be really lovely.”
Ashley Halsey III is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story,