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Today’s parking lots are tomorrow’s mobility hubs. Why is it a better use of space?

December 28, 2022

By Stephen Oliver

Surface parking is often a waste. Assessing assets, users, and opportunities will yield dividends for landowners.

A 2013 article from The Atlantic, “The Philosophy of SimCity: An Interview With the Game's Lead Designer,” still circulates online today about the creation of the game SimCity. In the story, lead designer Stone Librande points out developers could not include realistic parking requirements. Why? Because it essentially made the game no fun. 

“That was kind of a problem, because we were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots,” he stated in the article. 

The fact is real-world parking challenges are not a game, they are significant issues for urban planners. As communities and their needs evolve, we must evolve with them. We must incorporate smarter solutions that solve challenges—including parking lots—and make mobility more sustainable, equitable, and accessible. 

There are several components in a good mobility hub.

The real-life challenge of parking lots

Communities, cities, and campuses have an abundance of surface parking tied to their recent development. With large surface parking areas come inherent problems that go beyond inefficient use of space. Consider the impact on access for other travelers.

For instance, increased walking distances, hazardous biking through parking lots, circuitous transit, and low-efficiency movement for shared mobility. The parking impacts extend beyond travel and into the environment as we see evidence of heat sinks and impermeable surfaces affecting runoff and stormwater that create financial liabilities for the operator. As the cost of driving personal cars continues to rise, the cost of maintaining that infrastructure also rises.

In the transportation and land-use industry, we are familiar with the phasing out of development plans that show large surface parking areas. These are no longer ideal as the role of personal vehicles declines as a single mode of travel and as underground parking becomes feasible. The core challenge we’re working with our clients to resolve is a “chicken or the egg” type of problem. Do we change the built form away from parking lots or do we change the modes of travel before the development, thus reducing demand? In the long run, surface parking is an antiquated solution to single-mode mobility. The future of mobility lies in a multimodal, accessible, streamlined approach called “mobility hubs”.

Mobility hubs are the solution

A mobility hub is a natural evolution of the transportation system. Right now, we are working with our clients to incorporate them into communities and campuses in downtowns, rail stations, and suburban parking lots. At their core, mobility hubs are much more than a bus stop or station. They bring flexible transportation choices together in a key location to enable a range of options. These are generally delivered with primary, secondary, and neighborhood scalability. We use three design “levers” to define and design the mobility hub and achieve ambitious mobility goals: 

  • Optionality: Mobility hubs offer multiple transportation options appropriate to user demographics and market demand. Options might include public transit, cycling, and car share, for example.
  • Ease: An effective mobility hub makes travel more convenient. It also and enables more users to move seamlessly through it with minimal friction.  
  • Scale: The size of the mobility hub needs to suit the market demand, the options it makes available, and its location (from sidewalk to purpose-built structure to train station). 

By understanding the travel behaviors in an area and the services that people are moving to, we can work with clients to evolve the transportation system. Through these interventions, we create more expansive trips and serve more people. 

Mobility hubs offer a variety of scales.

Designing mobility hubs for the people

In most cases, buildings are oriented toward existing parking. By repurposing some or all this space, we can provide transportation choices to the people accessing the building as we design the mobility hub. For example, when the correct type of bike parking is placed in the right location, all nearby buildings invite cycling without each one needing to create their own unique solution. This example changes the relationship for the people accessing each building. They have a central, secure parking location that is a reliable end-of-trip facility, which opens new transportation choices.

Similarly, this approach extends to curbside management, deliveries, transit interchanges, electric vehicle charging, and even walking facilities. The mobility hub, properly placed and designed for the users interacting with it, creates a library of transportation solutions with high quality access to many destinations.

We have developed mobility hubs in a way that balances a range of capital and operational changes. Many of these changes can be temporary or a pilot program, which can influence behavior and change it over time.

Mobility hubs as a benefit to landowners

For landowners—building owner/operators, developers, or parking authorities—mobility hubs create a potential to expand users. They basically rejuvenate how people access the site, while directly trading inefficient transportation solutions for more options. Due to the space required, cost of construction, and the environmental impacts (e.g., heat sink, stormwater runoff), surface parking is wildly inefficient. 

Mobility hubs are much more than a bus stop or station. They bring flexible transportation choices together in a key location to enable a range of options.

When mobility hubs function at their peak, they can serve the same person on several trips and purposes. Now the owner of the same parking spaces has effectively created a complete street from a space. The owner also benefits from multiple integrated transportation options. This is uniquely possible here because the parking has already been built—at the intersection of transportation and destination. Parking lots can be more easily adapted to transportation hubs like bus terminals, rideshare drop-off and pickup, among other solutions.

Be proactive about parking potential

Parking lot owners that aren’t changing their plans towards a mobility future are at risk of losing their relevance. Today’s economic trends are putting pressure on the car as the single mobility solution. A mobility hub serves more customer types, uses land more efficiency, and ties the transportation land use to the needs of the future. This serves the parking function and opens the adjacent land uses to a range of new visitors and customers. The move away from the “car as king” lifestyle is an evolution, not a revolution. We work with clients to identify what transportation options are meaningful and viable. And we create a design that facilitates movement for everyone at the appropriate scale.

Curious in the potential that your parking has? Start by looking at areas for potential opportunities.

  1. Assess your assets. Explore the infrastructure on the ground for key transportation interchanges. Where are people going that is single-use transportation space, and where do different transportation networks meet?
  2. Assess your users. Look at the demographics, market demand, and population projections. Determine the modes of transportation needed to support a range of users.
  3. Act on your opportunity. Find the quick wins that can be rolled out rapidly in locations where people are interchanging already, and use this to support the network. Start by providing the opportunity to change behavior and don’t forget, big moves support big change.

You will find an enormous amount of potential in the latent demand for transportation options. Changing key points in the networks that already exist may unlock that demand. 

A modified version of this article appeared in ITE Canada’s Transportation Talk.

  • Stephen Oliver

    An urban planner, project manager, and public engagement specialist, Stephen promotes efficient movement in cities through the design of transit and multimodal projects.

    Contact Stephen
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