Suddenly, It’s 1900 Again


Suddenly, It’s 1900 Again

Karl Benz (yes, that Benz of Mercedes fame) began the modern era of automobile production, in Germany, in 1888. Soon after, in 1893, the Duryea brothers and Ransom Olds (yes, that Olds of Oldsmobile fame) launched auto manufacturing in the United States. By 1900, private autos were still a luxury and a rarity.
In 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson and driving partner Sewall K. Crocker became the first to drive across the U.S. in a gasoline-powered auto, and the visionaries of the time began to grasp what might lie ahead. By 1920, the automobile had pretty much supplanted the horse. More than 2.3 million automobiles were manufactured in the U.S. alone.
In barely 20 years, a technology and a way of life completely changed. The horse, the dominant means of powering land transportation for 5,500 years, was supplanted in the blink of an eye.
So what does that have to do with today? Perhaps we are on the verge of a transportation revolution akin to 1900. But this time, instead of the replacement of one means of powering transportation with another, the term to keep in mind is “convergence” – convergence of a number of powerful forces that may change the way we work, shop, live and play, with dramatic impacts on the parking industry.
Consider the convergence of these immense and seemingly irreversible forces:
The computer. Once the size of a warehouse, these often tiny devices now quietly manage and control everything from automobiles to refrigerators, from elevators to robots. Computers connected to a vast world of information make it possible for people to work where they like, when they like. We literally carry the world’s great libraries in a smartphone in our pocket or purse. We can pay for parking with a click or two on our cellphones.
The satellite. Once the tool of scientists and the military, satellites now make it possible to enjoy thousands of television and radio programs virtually anywhere, and give us instantaneous maps in case we get lost. And we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what GPS can do.
Climate change. No developer would build an office building today with the technology of 20 years ago. It would be economically obsolete the day it opened. The federal government now requires that, by 2025, autos must achieve the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard of 54.5 miles per gallon, virtually guaranteeing that the venerable, stand-alone internal combustion engine will be phasing out.
Changing lifestyles. We continue to be a more urbanized society, with not only young singles and couples, but also empty nesters, baby boomers and even families with kids, looking for downtown and urban neighborhood living opportunities. At the same time, the number of young people forgoing car ownership and even driver’s licenses is increasing rapidly. Car- and bike-sharing have become marks of a progressive city. Public transit is finally socially acceptable, with even trolley cars and streetcars re-emerging, and bus rapid transit gaining ground. Walking and biking are now seen as desirable means of transportation as well as part of a healthy lifestyle.
The “She-conomy.” Women are now the dominant decision-makers in many areas of life, including purchasing, residence and healthcare decisions, where they make or influence more than 80% of these choices. Women are 60% of college graduates, and control more than 50% of private wealth in the US. For these reasons, and many others, women will be an immense force in the transportation and parking industries.
These changes, along with advances in everything from architecture and building materials, portend a shift of massive proportions, and one that could occur as rapidly as the near demise of daily newspapers and telephone landlines.
So what would 2040 look like in terms of transportation and parking?
We talk about the future as a struggle between those who favor personal transportation and those who advocate public transit. This is an extremely limited, overly narrow and wrong-headed way to think about our future.
Instead, let’s imagine a local citizen named Jennifer. She doesn’t own an automobile, but she has almost instant access to personal transportation. She doesn’t have a 9 to 5 job, but is self-employed and very mobile. She lives in a city, in a very walkable “green” community, and her life is full of choices.
Her day might begin in a home office, but she lives within walking distance of her first client. Face-to-face meetings are still of great value, though video and phone conferences are often used.
Jennifer needs to leave that client and be across town quickly, so she raises her wrist, with its watch-like smartphone, and says, “Send a PTU (personal transportation unit) to 225 Walnut Street in ten minutes. I am going to 4200 Washington Boulevard.”
In 10 minutes, waiting outside is a Segway-based pod-like vehicle that opens on voice command. She steps in, asks for the video screen to show her the current stock market report, and relaxes while the self-driven unit takes her quietly (of course, it’s battery-powered) to her destination.
Jennifer is also thinking forward to the weekend, when she and her family will travel into the countryside in a larger family vehicle provided by a car-sharing firm like ZipCar. This vehicle will have both self-guided and manual modes, for those who still enjoy driving.
Meanwhile, that PTU Jennifer summoned has dropped her off at her destination, reminding her that she left a package on the seat, and gone to pick up another passenger, and will later return to a garage for recharging.
Far-fetched? Not at all; the technology to do all of this exists today. And it’s coming our way – fast.
What does this mean for the parking industry?
First, I’m advising clients to think long and hard before building a new “conventional” parking facility. Such structures typically have a 50-year life, but they could be obsolete in two decades. I believe that building flexible structures, using automated robotic technology, would be much wiser, simply because if these are designed properly, they can be converted in the future to office or even residential use. Also, automated garages appear more female-friendly – no more dark, dirty and dangerous parking structures to worry about.
I also think that the future of personal transportation is filled with options – from walking and biking to electric-powered vehicles of all sorts, and yes, to personal transportation as well. Those in the parking industry should be asking how they integrate what they do with the other options people have.
Finally, I believe that parking must become a much more
customer-oriented business. Parking operators who see themselves as enforcement-driven or revenue-driven will become as obsolete as, well, the horseless carriage.

David Feehan, President and CEO of Civitas Consultants, can be reached at

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David Feehan
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