Today, more than half the people on earth live in urban areas. By 2050 that number is projected to reach 66 percent. That’s 2.5 billion or so people squeezing into the world’s cities. Now imagine even 10 percent of those people have a car. That’s another 250,000,000 vehicles. The world has time to rethink city planning before gridlock becomes truly disastrous. Fortunately, automakers are coming around, and some even consider solving this problem a priority. Audi believes self-parking cars are part of the answer.
Under its Urban Future Initiative, the German automaker is working with the Boston suburb of Somerville to develop new ways of moving people around and reconsidering how cities are designed. “The car shaped the city in the 20th century, and in the 21st century the city will shape the car,” says Christian Gärtner, who is part of the project and a board member at the architecture and design firm Stylepark AG. In Somerville, Audi will help develop a connected network of traffic lights in the busy Union Square area to reduce congestion. More tantalizing is the rest of the plan: introducing cars that park themselves. Audi is working with a real estate developer to incorporate autonomous car tech in a program meant to drastically reduce the space lost to parking and the congestion caused by people trolling for a spot.
In a 2011 study published in Access magazine, UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup found 30 percent of the traffic in a downtown area is simply people looking for parking. The environmental ramifications are enormous. Shoup cites a 2008 study, conducted in a 15-block span of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, that found each driver spent an average of 3.1 minutes searching for parking space and covered an average distance of .37 miles. Extrapolate those figures, and Shoup says people roaming those 15 blocks alone created 366,000 excess vehicle miles of travel—that’s equivalent to 14 trips around the planet—and added 325 tons of CO2 in one year.