It’s been more than 20 years since I owned a car. Once you live in the centre of a big city, with good public transport alternatives, you just don’t need one. There’s never parking, plenty of congestion, you can’t drink alcohol, it’s expensive to run, can be stressful and it never seems to be quite the right size for each and every trip. Mostly though I have come to realise, just like cigarette smoking, it’s a selfish benefit enjoyed at the expense of others. The air and noise pollution produced, dedicated use of public space required and the safety risk posed to others, all run contrary to being a good urban citizen.
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So it’s with some excitement I am witnessing the rapid adoption of connected-car technologies that bring the Internet to the dashboard and ridesharing applications that deliver the benefits of private car service to all via smartphones.
China’s ride-hailing market is dominated by domestic competitors Didi Dache, backed by internet giant Tencent, and Kuaidi Dache, backed by rival Alibaba Group. Those services are used mostly by taxi companies. A third Chinese internet giant, search-engine operator Baidu Inc., jumped into the market in December by investing in Uber Technologies Ltd.
Not wanting to be left behind in this evolution, China’s largest car exporter, Chery, is teaming up with two local tech companies Pateo, which makes wireless systems and online car service provider Yongche, to form Yiqitaixing, in providing electric smart-car ridesharing services and aims to become the world’s largest electric carmaker by 2018. The plan is ambitious, involving the design and production of a fleet of Internet-connected all-electric smart cars that can be reserved by smartphone.
When Uber announced last autumn that it had launched People’s Uber in China because “Chinese consumers are known to be early adopters of technology, and municipal governments have acted quickly to support forward thinking initiatives that improve the city’s quality of life,” they probably hadn’t considered fully the potential implications that these changes could make to quality of life issues in the city.
Today China is indeed under the thrall of app taxi services and despite Beijing recently stating, “While we encourage innovation, we prohibit private cars from using platforms to participate in the ‘hired car’ business,” it seems only a short matter of time until the landscape of vehicle ownership and use is completely changed. With it, hopefully, will go the accepted way of planning and shaping the city.
Despite the drawbacks of cars in the city they still form an important component of urban transport solutions. The problem is that in the last century they became the main and sometimes only transport solution. As such cities have become shaped primarily for their use and people became reliant upon their convenience. But with massive urbanization for the world’s burgeoning population this cannot continue. A majority of urban streets need to return to common, adaptable mixed usage without the standardization required by highway design. The resulting benefits in improved road safety, community building and placemaking are even outstripped by the huge potential economies in utilising the huge amount of space required for roads and car parking for alternative uses.
Off-street parking is typically dull urban space, hostile to pedestrians and provided at the expense of other, more productive investments. Where density is low parking is land intensive and where high it’s capital intensive, making its cost substantial in either case. Most of all, the mandated provision of parking tacitly subsidizes automobile ownership since cars are parked most of the time and ownership is easier if a car can be cheaply and reliably stored when it is not being driven. Traffic congestion rightly earns tremendous attention, but the less glamorous parked car shapes daily urban life as much, if not more, than the car inching forward on a crowded freeway.
Removing private cars from the streets could radically change our cities and taxi-apps can play a huge part in this.
First and foremost authorities need to desist from setting minimum parking requirements in urban planning and replace this with maximums. Minimum parking requirements are intended to satisfy anticipated peak demands for parking at every land use, be it home, work, school, restaurants, shopping centres, and hundreds of other land uses. Because peak demands occur at different times of the day and may last for only a short time, several parking spaces must be available for every motor vehicle, resulting in tremendous inefficiencies.
Whilst minimum parking requirements produce a local benefit; they ensure that every land use can accommodate all cars “drawn to the site.” But this local benefit comes at a high price to the whole city. Minimum parking requirements increase the density of both parking spaces and cars. More cars create more traffic congestion, which in turn provokes calls for more local remedies, such as street widening, intersection flaring, intelligent highways, and higher parking requirements. More cars also produce more exhaust emissions.
Transport engineers do not consider the price of parking as a variable in estimating parking generation rates. Providing parking, especially free or low cost parking, generates trips. Urban planners allocate land use density so that new development will not generate more vehicle trips than nearby roads and highways can carry. Minimum parking requirements therefore distort transportation and land use. Restricting parking can limit trips, reduce road pressure and free up development space.