Add another item to the list of infrastructure in which the United States lags: robotic parking. As common in Asia and Europe as streetlights, parking that automatically stores and retrieves cars is only now catching on in American cities.
More primitive elevator-style parking has been around since the mid–20th century, but advanced automatic garages are more like three-dimensional chessboards: hydraulic pallets and computerized shelving park up to 250 cars per hour, with 32 cars in motion at any time. As cities become denser, the cost of high-density parking begins to pencil out for developers because it reduces parking square footage requirements by 50 to 75 percent, say experts, some of whom participated in a seminar held earlier this year in Los Angeles, presented by the University of California at Los Angeles Ziman Center for Real Estate.
"If you have high-density development, it makes sense to have high-density parking," says Donald C. Shoup, professor of urban planning at UCLA. "Talk to any developer: they say for small or irregular sites, robotic parking is the answer to space constraints. It will unlock the real estate potential of many urban infill sites."
The number of robo-parking spaces in the United States is estimated at 3,000, whereas China has installed 170,000 structures with multiple spaces per structure. Costs run from $25,000 to $50,000 per space, as opposed to $25,000 to $70,000 per space for underground parking.
Automated parking is an outstanding development option, says Cathleen Sullivan, San Francisco–based associate project planner for Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates and a member of the ULI Transit-Oriented Development Council. "It allows the same number of parking spots on a much smaller footprint, which provides much more interaction with the street environment," she says. "It’s also an interesting option for residents not quite ready to become zero-car households. They are not using their car every day, so they don’t need immediate access. For them, it’s more like storage than parking."
Sullivan says she sees it as another tool for developers seeking approval for city-friendly projects. "Anything that gives developers more space flexibility is positive," she says. The cost of developing robo-parking is especially competitive with that of creating underground parking structures. "You don’t have to dig as deep, and you can wrap parking with other uses that generate revenue, such as retail or residential," she notes. She and other advocates also point out the green advantages of using less fuel and fewer resources—including for lighting and ventilation—than needed for standard parking structures.
Other parking professionals, however, are not convinced. Chicago-based development investor John W. Hammerschlag, president of Hammerschlag & Co. Inc., has tracked the trend in the United States and overseas, but sees these systems limited to "small pieces of property that need to satisfy regulatory or commercial requirements, or where buildings are retrofitted to maximize capacity."
He is skeptical about claims of cost savings, in part because many cities force these systems to incorporate expensive fire-safety designs. "From a fire-code standpoint, a lot of municipalities find it very difficult to plan for them," Hammerschlag says. "In Chicago, they’ve forced people to install concrete to separate the floors. The whole fire issue has to be vetted, and this has certainly not been done at a national level."
Other practical problems exist. "Say it’s an office building: you have major queueing issues during rush hour when people are entering. Most city planners hate curb cuts, but you end up needing more curb cuts than [you would with] a typical garage, unless you get lucky and can enter the structure from a side street."
Hammerschlag sees the systems as enormous elevators, with similar problems but on a much larger scale and under much harsher conditions. "Parking is not a real friendly environment," he notes. "In Chicago, our garages have to operate in temperatures [ranging] from minus 20 to 110 degrees [Fahrenheit]. Doors and elevators freeze up. They are not maintenance free. And God help you when they break down. This is one area where I don’t want to be a pioneer."
Robert R. "Bud" Ovrom, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, has heard all these criticisms, but still supports the concept. His department conducted an 18-month survey of the technology before approving two recent projects in Los Angeles—for 15 and 17 cars each—with another currently under environmental review. And he has tracked larger southern California robo-parking projects in Santa Monica and West Hollywood; the Santa Monica development includes 385 stalls for a UCLA outpatient hospital.
"Fire safety is clearly the biggest issue from a public point of view," says Ovrom. "You have cars with full tanks of gasoline stacked much [more closely] than they normally would be. And cars are designed to be impervious to water. We care a lot about firefighter safety. We don’t want firefighters on dangerous gangways or catwalks. We have to build zones where they can work safely. The concrete-slab floors provide the best for that, while the ‘erector set’ mechanical gangways provide the least of that. That’s why many of the newer systems use concrete floors."
Regarding queueing issues and where cars can line up in tight urban grids, Ovrom says many developments are unsuited for robo-parking.
"You would not do this at a football stadium," he says. "The largest project we are considering [comprises] 708 spaces for a residential project in a high-income area where all of the parking would be valet anyway. The machine just whisks the car away."
It is the medium-sized projects that are the real question marks. "Restaurants, retail, and hospitals don’t have the same timing problems as office buildings. With offices, so many people get off work at 5 o’clock, and your throughput is 90 seconds to two minutes per car. Suddenly you’re backed up."
But overall, Ovrom says he is excited by the new technology. "Sure, when you’re on the cutting edge, sometimes you get bloody," he says. "But I remember when people were opposed to regular parking structures. We couldn’t live without them now."
This post originally appeared on Urban Land Institute, an Atlantic partner site.