Put it in park

Self-driving cars are en route to Houston — here's what that means for the city's parking garages

METRO is launching a self-driving car pilot program. What does that mean for all our parking garages? Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

As the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County gets ready to rev up its test of autonomous vehicles at Texas Southern University, a question looms over the commercial real estate sector in Houston: How much change will be driven by the no-driver trend, particularly as it relates to parking?

In an interview and a recent blog post, Rand Stephens, managing director of the Houston office of commercial real estate services company Avison Young, says it's difficult to envision that self-driving vehicles will make parking garages and lots in Houston obsolete.

Rather, Stephens says, some parking garages and lots will become "staging areas" for autonomous vehicles where they can wait for their next trip, be recharged, and be maintained.

Stephens adds that street parking is poised to transform into zones for dropping off and picking up people, and for deliveries of groceries and other goods. "Instead of vehicles sitting all day in one spot," he says, "they will be on the move from spot to spot."

Other parking structures, however, will simply be razed to make way for office or residential high-rises, Stephens says. Adaptive reuse of parking garages isn't feasible, he says, as that could prohibitively cost as much as $90 to $100 per square foot.

One bump in the road for commercial real estate developers will figuring out how to put up buildings that can accommodate traditional parking but that later might need to adapt to self-driving vehicles, according to Stephens. He notes that suburban office buildings typically offer a ratio of four parking spots for every 1,000 square feet of space.

"I think forward-thinking tenants, developers, brokers, architects, and engineers will design interim solutions with lower ratios," Stephens tells InnovationMap. "They'll really take the time to understand the occupants' commuting patterns and steer away from one parking space for one person."

On the horizon, though, are even more dramatic changes for parking in Houston and elsewhere.

A 2017 report from the Urban Land Institute and Green Street Advisors LLC, a commercial real estate research and advisory firm based in Newport Beach, California, predicted driverless vehicles and ride-sharing services could eliminate the need for half of U.S. parking spaces — as much as 75 billion square feet. Under that scenario, Houston would lose nearly half (close to 5.1 million square feet) of the roughly 100,000 parking spaces at garages in the Central Business District.

While we likely won't see parking garages and lots in Houston vanish anytime soon, we already are witnessing the rise of driverless vehicles.

In March, grocery chain Kroger revealed self-driving delivery vehicles would hit the streets this spring in four Houston ZIP codes. Kroger's Houston market is the second stop in Kroger's pilot program for autonomous delivery vehicles.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) is gearing up to test a self-driving vehicle at the Texas Southern University campus. The first phase of the pilot project will kick off June 5.

During the summer session at Texas Southern, an EasyMile EZ10 Gen-1 bus will run along the campus' one-mile "Tiger Walk" — closed to public traffic — at up to 12 mph. The battery-powered vehicle can accommodate six seated passengers and six standing passengers.

Although the shuttle will drive itself, a trained operator will be on board at all times to monitor it, METRO says. Rides will be provided at no cost, but Texas Southern students, professors, employees, and visitors will be required to swipe their METRO Q-card and sign a liability waiver before hopping aboard.

"This pilot puts us on the path of testing the technology in a mixed-use traffic environment," Kimberly Williams, chief innovation officer at METRO, says in a news release.

If the $250,000 first phase succeeds, the second phase — on tap for this year's fall semester — will extend the route to a nearby rail station and possibly offer a connection to the Texas Medical Center's TMC3 research campus. METRO says the second phase would require third-party funding.

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Building Houston

 
 

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance, Trevor Best of Syzygy Plasmonics, and Muriel Foster of gBETA Houston. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from cleantech to startup acceleration — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Kerri Smith, managing director of the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

As the managing director for the Rice Alliance for Entrepreneurship and Technology's Clean Energy Accelerator, Kerri Smith is focused not only on the program's cohorts but on supporting the Houston cleantech ecosystem as a whole. CEA works with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on a recent Houston Innovators Podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics

Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the growth of his cleantech startup. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

Trevor Best is gearing up to fundraise for and scale his cleantech startup, Syzygy Plasmonics. The company has also grown its team to 60 people and is preparing to move into a new 45,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Pearland this summer.

"What we're seeing is the market's appetite for our kind of technology — deep tech for decarbonization in energy and chemicals — is really high. If we want to meet global demand for our product, we need to get ready to scale," Best says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Best is keeping a close eye what the market will be looking for, and the interest seems to be in hydrogen as a clean energy solution, which has positioned Syzygy in a great place. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Muriel Foster, director of gBETA Houston

Muriel Foster, a native Houstonian, is the new director of gBETA Houston. Image via LinkedIn

A national startup accelerator has announced its fifth local cohort, which includes five Houston companies participating in the spring 2022 class, and the new leader that will oversee the program. Muriel Foster is the newly named director of gBETA Houston, which is designed to help guide early-stage startups find early customer traction, connect with mentors, and more.

“The five companies selected for the Spring 2022 cohort tackle unique problems that have propelled them to create a business that solves the issues they once faced," Foster says in a news release. "From public speaking, apparel comfort, and food delivery from underrepresented restaurant owners, these founders have found their niche and are ready to continue to make an enormous impact on the Houston ecosystem."

A Houston native, she has her master’s in public administration from Texas Southern University and a bachelor’s in marketing from Oklahoma State University. Her background includes work in the nonprofit sector and international business consulting in Cape Town, South Africa, and she's worked within programming at organizations such as MassChallenge, BLCK VC, and now gener8tor. Click here to read more.

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