Automated parking garages are now popping up on both coasts. Could this save dense cities space?

In the densest cities in America, cars and people live in a constant competition for space. There’s only so much of it on, say, the island of Manhattan, and every street spot, parking garage and surface lot represents an asset where the city can’t put people (in apartments, offices or parks). This is a messy dilemma – one of the toughest cities face in the 21st century – and it’s complicated by the fact that plenty of these same people want to own cars even as they pay more to house them than they do themselves.

In trying to strike the right balance between the two, cities have a handful of options: There’s the behavioral fix (move more people onto transit or bikes), the engineering fix (build smaller cars), the sharing fix (everyone into a Zipcar!), the zoning fix (limit new parking in the code) and the pricing fix (jack up meter rates).

But there’s also one other tactic that has only been tried now in a handful of U.S. cities: the spatial fix.

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"There are always going to be people who need to drive to where they’re going," figures Ari Milstein, the North American executive director of Automotion Parking Systems. "Therefore, there is some level of parking that needs to be provided."

So why not at least stack those parked cars as efficiently as possible, with the help of machines? Automotion opened New York City’s first automated parking garage five years ago. The idea, like a lot of others, tailed off during the recession. But today Automotion operates three public parking garages in the city. It’s about to unveil plans to build another one (in a major metro to be named later) underneath a public park. And the city of New York earlier this year proposed for the first time revised size regulations on parking garages to recognize their automated brethren in places like downtown Brooklyn (until now Milstein says, most city code has no idea what to do with these things).

Elsewhere, Philadelphia now has a couple automated garages, including one in a luxury condo tower that might not have been feasible with typical parking requirements. Miami got its first automated garage earlier this year and now has a $6.5 million, 480-car system under construction in a new condo development. West Hollywood is also building a five-story automated garage behind City Hall, which will come with this curious accolade: It’ll be the first automated public parking lot west of the Mississippi.

Perhaps all of this sounds like an absurdly luxurious concession to car culture (now we’re building elevators for them!). That impression was, after all, part of Mitt Romney’s image problem. But at the urban scale, the idea opens up some interesting new land-use scenarios in crowded communities with little room to maneuver. These automated garages can often store the same number of cars in half the space because so much real estate in a conventional lot goes not to parking spots, but to all the space wandering drivers need to get in and out of them. Today the idea is no longer just a mechanical wonder for luxury condos. It’s a reality for the rest of us who pay five bucks an hour every time we pull into a public lot.

"We’re even going to a point where we’re reducing the man hours that we have so the machine really runs as intended," Milstein says. "It’s a fully automated garage with nobody on site, with cars coming in and out very much like a vending machine."

In Automotion’s garages, drivers pull into a 17-by-20 foot cabin. All of the mechanics and plasma screens aside, this should actually be easier, Milstein says, than trying to make the parking-spot squeeze between a cement ceiling support and a poorly parked Range Rover. The system then moves and deposits cars in about two minutes, and the entrance bay is ready for a new car within about a minute and 10 seconds. As more companies are now building these systems in America (Automotion works with the German manufacturing firm Stopa), the industry has spawned something of a CGI film collection illustrating just what all of this looks like for the baffled American imagination.

This is the video (with a honky-tonk soundtrack) from Isreali firm Unitronics, which is building the West Hollywood garage:

The mechanics are not dramatically different from those that have been used for decades in factories to automatically move and store sheet metal or massive boxes (in America, though, the concept as applied to cars doesn’t have a perfect record; one early prototype in Hoboken, New Jersey is infamous for repeatedly dropping cars and trapping drivers).

Automotion still mans its New York garages three days a week with a human being, an "automated parking specialist." This person, Milstein says, "would be the equivalent of a parking valet who doesn’t park cars." And he’s needed more to manage the human factors of the lot than its machinery.

"In New York City, still the most valuable method of attracting business is a man in the street with a flag waving cars in as they drive by,” Milstein laughs (because these are public lots, they require marketing). "As fancy and as technologically advanced as we are, that’s still the best way to get cars in off the street."

Advocates of the industry are also quick to bill automated garages as an environmental improvement for the city. From the moment cars are parked in an entrance bay, their engines are cut off. The rest of the parking process is done without tailpipe emissions. Milstein argues that these garages can also be more energy-efficient than conventional ones, despite the power required to run their extensive machinery. The whole operation only kicks on, he says, when a car needs to be moved. So there’s no need to light the garage at all hours of the day, or to run elevators for the drivers, or to keep ventilation systems churning out the exhaust.

The trickier cost-benefit analysis may be the financial one. A parking lot that runs like a vending machine is obviously more expensive than a surface lot of paved asphalt. But in some scenarios, the added cost of all this technology can be offset by the savings of building a tighter structure, particularly underground, or by creating space for alternative uses.

"If I’m in downtown New York, and instead of building a floor of parking I can build a floor of office space," Milstein says, "that exchange is financially profitable to the project."

He estimates that an automated garage runs about $25,000 a parking spot to construct. A regular above-ground garage in the middle of Arkansas would cost maybe $10,000 a spot less, and an underground conventional facility in a densely populated place like Manhattan can run above $40,000 a spot. The calculation varies depending on the size of the project and the value of the land.

With their first project in New York, Automotion helped a development team take what was once a 100-car surface parking lot in Lower Manhattan and turn it into a 24-unit apartment building with ground-floor retail and 67 parking spots. That’s clearly a more efficient use of the land, although hardliners may take issue with why the neighborhood needs those 67 parking spots at all. Milstein’s premise – some people will always need cars – is debatable in neighborhoods like this one. But it’s equally worth having the conversation about how to minimize the footprint of parking as long as people continue to do it.

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