Vertical parking garage

Parking “Robots” Provide Relief for Developers in Dense Urban Areas

By now it’s well documented: people are driving less and buying fewer cars. This is particularly true among younger generations. According to a study by the University of Michigan, only 69% of 19-year-olds had a driver’s license in 2014, down from 90% in 1983. The percentage of 20-somethings with driver’s licenses has also fallen 13% over the past three decades. Nonetheless, most municipalities require developers to build at least one parking space per new housing unit, even in transit-oriented areas. This is particularly pronounced in Los Angeles, where the city’s minimum parking requirements require developers to build 1.0 parking space per studio unit, 1.5 parking spaces for one-bedroom units, and at least 2.0 parking spaces for units with two or more bedrooms.

The costs of building those spaces can quickly add up. In Los Angeles, it costs an average $83/square foot (SF) to construct an above-ground parking space; $108/SF to build underground parking. This means a single parking space in Los Angeles can cost anywhere from $27,000 to $35,000 to construct. These estimates are an understatement because they only refer to the cost of constructing a parking space in Los Angeles. They do not include the cost of the land beneath, or soft costs and carrying costs.

Los Angeles land values vary drastically depending on the condition of land (vacant, improved, existing utilities), its shape, size, location, and how it is zoned. Land that is zoned for denser development often costs more because the land costs can be spread out over a larger number of units. Nonetheless, land values in Los Angeles are among the highest in the country. A CoStar analysis reveals that, as of May 2017, the average acre of land was selling for $13 million in Los Angeles, or about $300 per square foot. The average parking space is 330 SF, and there are 43,560 SF per acre. This means that in Los Angeles, the average cost of land per parking space is nearly $100,000. When land costs and construction costs are combined, it means that developers often must pay upwards of $127,000 to build an above-ground parking space; or more than $135,000 to build a below-ground space. Depending on the size of the unit, developers may be required to build more than one space per unit. In a city starved for additional housing, arcane parking requirements are preventing the development of badly needed housing. More parking for cars means less housing for people.

One solution is for cities to rethink their parking requirements. New York City and Seattle only require one parking space per unit. Other cities have considered adopting parking maximums (particularly in transit-oriented districts) to alleviate traffic congestion and promote walkable, dense urban development. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for Los Angeles. In 1999, the city adopted its Adaptive Reuse Ordinance (ARO), which allows developers to convert economically distressed or historically significant office buildings into new residential units – with no new parking spaces required. In the three decades prior to adopting the ARO, only 4,300 housing units were built downtown. In the nine years after adopting the ARO, developers created 7,300 new residential units spread across 56 historic office buildings. Nearly all of these office buildings had been vacant for at least five years; converting them to residential housing became feasible thanks to the new ARO policy, and occupancy of these buildings has breathed new life into downtown.

But developers only have so much control over the policies implemented at the local level. Sure, they can lobby policymakers to adopt more sensible parking requirements. Absent a zoning overhaul, developers must take things into their own hands.

Enter Parking Robots

Implementing automated parking systems, or “parking robots,” optimizes space that would otherwise be set aside for parking. Although these systems vary slightly by company, they tend to work something like this: A driver enters a parking garage and is guided into a parking bay. After exiting the vehicle and locking the doors, the driver’s job is done. The bay is equipped with sensors and motion detectors to confirm there is nobody left in the car before beginning the parking process. The sensors scan the car for general size, width, height, and weight. A parking robot then “retrieves” the car and, using a system of tracks throughout the garage, moves the vehicle to the most efficient parking space for that vehicle. Depending on the size and layout of the garage, the automated system might include parking lifts that allow the cars to be stacked efficiently on top of one another – like building blocks. The system will usually track and monitor vehicles, shuffling cars as needed, to optimize space. To retrieve a vehicle, simply swipe a resident key fob or parking ticket at the parking kiosk. A monitor will display which bay the vehicle will arrive in and its position in the cue. Cars are typically returned to their drivers within 2 to 5 minutes.

The concept isn’t exactly new. The earliest examples of automated parking garages date back to 1905 when Europeans parked their vehicles on a structure that looked akin to a Ferris wheel. Kent Automatic Garages built two automatic garages in NYC in the late 1920s and early 1930s; the garage at the corner of 61st Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan was dubbed the “Hotel for Autos”. The use of parking robots remains in its nascent stages here in the U.S., but these systems have been used abroad for decades. They’re particularly common in Germany, Japan, and throughout the Middle East. We suspect U.S. adoption to increase as technology continues to be refined.

A few companies are at the forefront of this new technology. Just as Uber and Lyft revolutionized how we hail a cab, Unitronics and CityLift are deploying new technology to transform how we park. Automated parking garages can take many forms, from manual to semi- and fully automatic systems. For instance, CityLift offers five different parking design solutions:

  • The Puzzle system is the company’s most popular, designed for compact urban areas. The Puzzle is a semi-automatic stacking system that CityLift calls ideal for new construction or retrofit projects that have a minimum clear height of 11’7”. This system can accommodate up to five levels of parking, with or without pits, and can be designed in tandem configurations.
  • The Tower is best for narrow spaces and can be built as a stand-alone garage or part of a new structure. This fully automated system uses steel beams and columns and doubles as the building structure.
  • The Aisle is a fully automated system designed to accommodate large development projects. It can be built above or below ground, above buildings or behind and between other structures. The Aisle is popular for its ability to achieve high-density parking.
  • The Shuffle is optimal for one-story projects. It maximizes parking by eliminating “dead spaces” like driving aisles.
  • The Stacker is CityLift’s only manually operated system, making it one of the more versatile and cost-effective parking solutions. The Stacker is a quick and easy way to increase parking in buildings that offer valet service.

Depending on the system implemented, a developer can double – even triple – a project’s parking capacity. What’s more, they can do so while reducing the parking garage’s overall footprint.

These systems aren’t cheap. The cost per space for a robotic parking system depends on a number of factors, including the size and layout of a property, the total number of parking spaces needed, and the required speed of the system. The average turnkey price of a system ranges from $20,000 to $30,000 per space for a mid-sized garage. Yet when the cost of land (or reduction thereof) is factored into the equation, the spaces become more affordable—roughly $10,000 to $16,000 per space, again, depending on project size.

Operating and Capital Costs: Conventional vs. Automated Parking Garage

Samuel I. Schwartz, P.E., in his article The Garage of the Future Must be Green compared the operating and capital costs of a conventional garage versus an automated parking facility for a proposed 892-car garage in Manhattan, New York. Admittedly, this is a huge garage. Most development projects won’t have parking facilities that large. Nonetheless, his comparison is illustrative.

Conventional ParkingAutomated Parking
Hours of Operation24/724/7
Payroll & Benefits$850,000$145,000
Bank Fee$100,000$100,000
Support Services$75,000$35,000
Other Operating$150,000$75,000
Real Estate Taxes$150,000$150,000
Capital Costs
Security Cameras$30,000$30,000
Capital Account$240,000$60,000
GRAND TOTAL$2,020,000$915,000

Schwartz points out that the operating costs for a conventional garage are considerably higher with greater needs for maintenance, security, cleaning, snow, and salt removal. He writes, “In addition, the useful life of a conventional [parking] deck is about 20 years. The earliest European systems show little or no wear after about 15 years. These steel structures probably have twice the life of conventional garages.” Indeed, one of the first mechanical systems built by Krupp in Munich, Germany in 1956 is still in operation today – after more than half a century.

"When all factors are considered, the cost of operating an automated garage is less than half (-55%) that of a conventional garage,” Schwartz concludes. In this case, an operator can save over $1.1 million / year with automated parking.”

The Benefits of Automated Parking

The most obvious benefit of using an automated parking system is the ability of a developer to reduce a garage’s footprint. Travel lanes and ramps are eliminated, and parking spots can be smaller because you’ve eliminated the need for people to open and close car doors – leading to an overall reduction in garage size ranging from 40 to 80 percent. This makes it much easier for a developer to comply with the municipality’s parking requirements, particularly in dense urban areas. Construction costs are lowered (e.g., less land area needed to accommodate structured parking, less money spent on excavation for underground parking garages); the construction timeline can be accelerated, and space that was otherwise slated to be used for parking can be monetized by adding new rentable space/units or enhancing building amenities.

Building residents and visitors also benefit from automated parking, which reduces the stress of finding and squeezing into parking garage spaces. No more worrying about dings and dents caused by people opening car doors in tight parking garages!

And let’s not forget about the environment: automated parking garages reduce gas use and pollution that results from vehicle emissions. Should the parking structure become obsolete in the future, the structural parking elements can be rem removed and the building can be reused for alternative uses.

Garage Technology

The technology used in these automated parking systems continues to be refined, and often includes the integration of a redundant server that allows the parking garage to continue operating if a piece of equipment goes down. In the event of a power outage, most automated parking garages have a backup emergency power generator on-site to ensure customers are still able to retrieve their vehicles accordingly.

Automated parking garages are increasingly integrating mobile technology into their systems. For instance, mobile apps can be used to make a reservation in a specific garage, retrieve a vehicle, or manage payments electronically. The attraction for use of customer mobile devices is the cost to the operator, which is low given that the operator need only provide the app rather than the hardware. The limitation, of course, is that not all customers may carry mobile devices, requiring the duplication of software and hardware (e.g. a pay station) to perform some of the same functions (at least for now).

Growth in Popularity

Star Tower in Long Island City, NY (32 spaces), Harmon Guest House in Healdsburg, CA (43 spaces), The Austin in San Francisco (78 spaces), and the Stonefire in Berkeley, CA (61 spaces) are just a few of the projects online that include robotic parking.

Even municipalities, the local governments responsible for outdated parking requirements, are getting in the business of providing robotic parking. A two-story public parking garage in Oakland, CA was retrofitted in 2015 using one of CityLift’s “Puzzle” systems. The garage, where monthly parking permits sell for $200 per space, increased parking by 50% and generates additional revenue for the municipality in the process. And in West Hollywood, CA says it saves over $1 million annually after building a fully robotic parking garage, the municipality’s first.

Los Angeles opened its first automated parking garage in 2016. Located on the Helms Bakery campus in Culver City, it is the city’s largest fully automated system. It was installed by California-based AutoParkit and allowed the developer to increase parking from 86 spaces to 247 spaces using the same land area and for the same cost as a traditional parking structure. Wally Marks, whose family’s real estate company bought and renovated the 11-acre Helms Bakery property in the 1970s, says he decided to invest in the automated garage for the benefit of the employees who work at the 17 companies scattered throughout the campus.

Automated parking garages are becoming so prevalent in New York City that the city just included language about automated parking in its Zoning Ordinance released in 2016. The Zoning Ordinance, the apparent first of its kind in the U.S., differentiates between attended parking facilities with parking lift systems (semi-automatic) and fully automatic parking facilities, with specific regulations for each. Currently, most municipalities permit automated parking garages on a case-by-case basis. As these systems become more popular, we suspect other municipalities to follow NYC’s lead by integrating language directly into the zoning code to ensure consistency across projects.

In an era where developers and municipalities alike are being pushed to conserve resources and maximize return on investment, progressive solutions are more important than ever. Parking robots offer a viable alternative to the conventional parking garages of yesteryear. Technology will only continue to advance in the coming years, making automated parking systems more efficient and reliable than ever before.