[Note: This website applauds the overall master plan. This post is an attempt to predict and discuss a possible area of concern that may arise.]
When people view the master plan, invariably the first question is: Where’s the parking?
The master plan dispenses with the massive “greyfield” parking lot and transforms it into an open green space and concert venue. It’s a loss of a lot of parking spaces, but there’s no need for panic. The plan calls for 200 parking spaces in the waterfront area and it points out there are 4,000 public parking spaces within a short walk. And by short walk is meant just a few blocks, closer than at the St. Pete waterfront.
And there’s something to be said for compelling people to walk through downtown. That’s one of the main incentives for investing in the waterfront in the first place – to revive and rejuvenate downtown Clearwater.
There’s another reason for not including parking areas in the priceless waterfront: the whole nature of transportation is about to change. Driverless cars and shuttles will change the game.
Carnegie Mellon is considered the birthplace of autonomous vehicle technology, and last week the director of their Smart Transportation Research Institute stated that it no longer makes sense to place large parking lots and garages in prime locations. Instead, smart planners should create remote parking areas where autonomous vehicles can wait after dropping off their passengers. These parking areas can also be served by continuously-running driverless shuttles.
This game-changer might seem to be distant in the future, but it’s actually not. Automakers and tech companies have invested tens of billions in this technology, and it’s already at a point where autonomous shuttles can operate safely in a defined downtown neighborhood. In a few years they will be commonplace.
The master plan should ideally provide more areas for drop-off and pick-up and special lanes/areas for autonomous shuttles in the waterfront area. There is plenty of vacant land in and around the downtown area for “remote” parking purposes (and in any case, there are already 4,000 spaces available).
In a way, we should be grateful that this master plan is taking place now rather than five years ago. Back then we wouldn’t have been thinking in terms of autonomous vehicles, and there’s little doubt that valuable waterfront and bluff parcels would have been set aside for parking lots or garages. But now the future of transportation is crystal clear and we can design accordingly.