Densification Without Displacement: How Incentivizing a Self-Driving Future Can Solve Urban Issues

While we observe a lack of housing supply in many American cities, there is a solution to our housing woes already woven into the urban fabric, especially in Southern California. Approximately 14% of all land in Los Angeles County is devoted to the parking of vehicles, machines that are idle roughly 95% of the time. As urban transportation gravitates towards the concept of mobility as an on-demand service, cities will have an opportunity to utilize intelligent zoning modifications to incentivize private landowners to solve some of their cities most urgent problems with reductions to parking requirements.

As a pilot study, we analyzed two blocks of existing urban development in Los Angeles to measure patterns of land availability. The question we wanted to answer is: if we reduce parking requirements due to newer mobility options, how much more density can we add under as-of-right zoning without displacing residents?* Los Angeles as a test case presents ideal conditions to consider this proposition: a housing shortage, neighborhood pressure to avoid large developments, consistent annual increases in population, a lack of undeveloped land, and a robust rent stabilization program that limits evictions.

Mobility Assumptions

When we considered the future of mobility for this study, we are anticipating the continued expansion of two ongoing separate transportation revolutions: ridesharing and autonomous (self-driving) vehicles. Each are disruptive to existing patterns, and when combined have potent transformative power. Our zoning analysis assumes a majority adoption of shared mobility services via electric autonomous vehicles, wherein a traveler would request a ride on-demand as an individual (or as a pool), untethered by the storing or maintaining of their means of transportation.

Reimagining Land Use

To fit more housing within existing neighborhoods, space devoted to parking or vehicular access will have to be removed from properties. Our analysis shows that we can add up to 81% more floor area and up to 51% more dwelling units within the zones of the study area. Densification in this manner also allows for more open space. When parking requirements are removed entirely, our study shows that green space would increase between 11-76%.

For the greatest urban benefit, cities should embrace reductions to their parking requirements as leverage to negotiate with private landowners for urban needs. A city could offer, for example, to reduce parking with an incentivization program wherein a private developer could be responsible for items including affordable housing requirements and street improvements for green space or bicycle lanes.

 

 

Typologies

Though we analyzed several typologies and how they might change in a separate article, it is useful to note recurring issues with particular building types in Los Angeles. Single-family and duplex style homes in R1 and R2 zones benefit quite directly from an elimination of rear yard covered parking garages, and can typically accommodate an additional unit in the recovered ground space. Some denser buildings in our R3 study area also have this rear yard garage condition, producing a relatively easy swap for more dwelling units. Accessory dwelling units on single-family lots may already be added via a new California state law (AB)2299/(SB)1069.

Another typology is the Dingbat, as seen below from our study area, which does not have a generous rear yard but instead has the benefit of gaining a street-front dwelling unit in the recovered parking spaces. Simultaneously, these types of structures would likely transform their enormous driveways into green space.

The densest buildings in lots zoned for R3 and R4 – which tend to have subterranean parking level(s) – do not have any modifications proposed in this study. But, we do see two important possibilities for these existing garages: (1) Shared autonomous vehicles will need to park somewhere during idle times for charging and/or maintenance. Apartment buildings with extensive parking garage facilities would likely develop their own economic models for leasing space to mobility providers. (2) Many of these building’s parking levels are located along a sloped lot, are only semi-submerged, or are entirely above ground. These types of spaces can be converted to new occupiable space and/or dwelling units.

“Dingbat” in Study Area

Raised Multifamily on Sloped Lot

 

Economics of Parking Reduction

If cities do not incentivize the adoption of mobility services by reducing the space devoted to parking, it will likely occur naturally, but over a longer period of time and without the opportunity to incentivize property owners for urban needs. Though only referenced in this study, cities will need to balance the competing resources, needs, and incentives of various stakeholders, including property owners, tenants, neighbors, politicians, and the mobility providers themselves.

For example, there may be an economic need to compensate current tenants for their parking spaces, monies that could be recovered by a landlord from the new monthly rents being collected on the property and transferred to the existing tenants in the form of a reduced lease. Arguably, this compensation can be considered payment towards these tenants’ adoption of mobility service providers.

 

Land Use Nirvana

Up to 25% of certain commercial zones in West Los Angeles are devoted to the maintenance, refueling, selling, fixing, and cleaning of privately owned vehicles. Shared mobility services will reduce the need for these functions drastically. The maintenance needs of shared autonomous vehicles will most likely occur at fleet service locations, perhaps on the fringes of metropolitan areas. Vehicular charging would occur locally in existing garages, or be developed as needed.

We conducted a preliminary study of the area in the image below, a desirable commercial strip along Pico Boulevard between Spaulding and Masselin (as researchers, we have been consulting on this district since it was named one of the city’s “Great Streets,” an area devoted to improving pedestrian life and community). The team quickly became aware that there was an incredible surplus of auto-body repair shops within the designated “Great Street.” These commercial buildings are devoid of life, walled, and toxic. In the abridged area shown below, roughly 24% of the land, or 59,670 SF of ground space, can be considered for future mixed use or multifamily development.

 

Lifestyle

Though not specifically considered in this analysis, there are many socio-economic issues and lifestyle changes that may result from the mass adoption of shared mobility services. We may speculate on some of the issues and some of the solutions. Where would someone store their gym bag?  Where would they keep a whole day’s worth of shopping?  What about Home Depot trips?  Surely, mobility providers will continue to develop answers to many of these questions. Perhaps users will have the ability to schedule an autonomous vehicle for sustained use. And, perhaps the continued expansion of delivery will free us even further from the concept of owning our own vehicles.

Another common concern is about costs and how equitable a mobility service might be. For our current paradigm, in addition to the cost of the vehicle itself, the costs for maintaining a personal vehicle include: registration, insurance, gas/electricity, maintenance, parking, tickets/violations, tolls, depreciation, and environmental agitators. In addition, developers will mention the hidden (subsidized) costs to provide free parking at apartment buildings, offices, and retail buildings. The greatest overall cost may not even be financial, but the economic value of a driver’s time. There will also be substantial benefits to the elderly, people with disabilities, teenagers, and fearful drivers. Optimistically, shared AV users will begin to see the benefit of being dropped off in front of their destinations, celebrating their newfound liberation from behind the wheel.

Traffic

It is true that a “vehicle per person” does not inherently reduce overall congestion. While transportation engineers should answer the toughest questions (see LA DOT’s excellent mobility report here), we can speculate that the efficiencies of pooled mobility enabled by GPS algorithms will begin to reduce total vehicle miles traveled. Though modest reductions in congestion may be achieved by reducing the space between travelling vehicles and by eliminating distracted human driving, the greatest reductions may occur when mobility service provision is considered in conjunction with the mass transit expansions already approved and under construction in Los Angeles County. According to a study by the International Transport Forum, up to a 44% reduction in vehicular traffic can be achieved if both autonomous vehicles and high-capacity transit are linked. (We delved further into the peculiarities of the Los Angeles metropolitan structure in this article.)

Think of an example this way: when generating a new ride from our study area to downtown Los Angeles – a distance of about 8 miles – a user would be presented with two inclusive options from point A to point B, with accurate references to both time and cost: (a) $6 for a private ride to the nearest metro station (1 mile) or (b) $14 for a private ride direct to downtown.

Our future city will be more dense, more green, and more convenient.

 

Besides being Principal of IntuArch, Michael is a Board Member at the non-profit Civic Projects Foundation

 

* Zoning Note: Our study considers two modifications to the existing zoning code to facilitate the construction of entirely separate new buildings on the existing study area properties. We reduced the required rear yard setback within the R3 zone without an alley from 15’-0” o 10’-0”, and reduced the separation between buildings on the same lot from 20’-0” to 10’-0”. Both considerations could alternatively be accommodated if the new construction is designed as extensions to existing buildings, rather than as a separate unit.

 

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