Friday, July 26, 2013

The Return of the “Pigeon-Hole Garage”?

By the late 1950s, merchants in the struggling downtown of Norristown, Pennsylvania, had been confronted for over a decade by a problem that still dominates urban centers today: the lack of “conveniently located” space to accommodate the increasing number of automobiles delivering shoppers to their stores.  Then technology seemed to offer a way out of their dilemma, promising to accommodate a large number of cars on a small footprint. An alliance of merchants and local banks, seduced by this near-miraculous solution to what had seemed a physical impossibility, produced the “Pigeon-Hole Garage” (that’s it in the photo to the left, at its 1962 opening).  The technology failed, dealing downtown Norristown both a financial and psychological blow.  Today a new technology has appeared that again promises to “solve” the problem.  It also promises to add fuel to the already white-hot dispute over urban parking garages, and provides me the opportunity to again demonstrate why I choose the title for my blog.

As I recount in my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania from Main Street to the Malls, long ago (in the minds of planners, if not historians) and across the continent, the Borough of Norristown was attempting to deal with the two-sided problem brought upon urban grids by the automobile: traffic congestion and parking.  Most attention focused on the parking aspect.  Street parking and a few too-small surface lots were already both clogged and controversial.  The only location with a potentially sufficient footprint for a conventional parking garage of the necessary size lay at the already decaying west end of downtown Main Street.   An extreme form of parochialism among both Norristown’s merchants and its elected representatives ensured that such a solution never really entered the public discourse.  Thus, when a proposal for a parking garage requiring only a footprint that could be accommodated on a small lot in the center of downtown appeared, it seized the imagination of virtually everyone.  The new technology required the driver to only park on a lift; after all occupants had exited, the mechanism would raise the automobile and insert it into a space just large enough for the vehicle itself (hence the term “pigeon-hole”), then extract and lower it upon the driver’s return.  

While questions exist about the firms engaged to build and operate the machinery, it is clear that the banks and businessmen of Norristown placed their bet on a technological dead end. The “Pigeon-Hole Garage” was not just a failure; it was a debacle for Norristown.  The technology did not exactly take America’s urban centers by storm, either.  The concept did not die, of course, and has been reborn in the form of “stacked parking,” which invests a great deal less in the structure itself, and can be found today adding marginally to some parking lots in large cities.

History does not repeat itself, but broad patterns of behavior certainly do, and the new technology at issue promises another replay of an oft-repeated sequence.  The overall technology is generally referred to as the “driverless car,” and has become a frequent subject in a variety of articles, columns and blogs.  A first step—moving vehicles “communicating” with each other to prevent rear-end collisions—is on the horizon.  A potential early step in the direction of the “driverless car” could be the adoption of “autonomous parking,” one of the many examples of ongoing research into aspects of the broader concept.  Letting our cars park themselves could, as a recent article in The Economist suggests, ease our acceptance of letting them drive themselves.  Be that as it may, the technology of autonomous parking alone suggests myriad possibilities for the next generation of disputes over automobiles and the urban grid.  It could also result in the reappearance of the “pigeon-hole” concept on a much larger scale.

 Experiments currently under way by the Volvo company promise to give a car the ability to park itself, not just in the partial way already available on some, but from the garage’s entrance up the (still necessary) ramps, into a very tight space, then out again and back down to the driver, all made possible by the interactive wireless transmission of huge amounts of data.  The enticement is obvious: absent the need to open the car doors for people, each parking space can be smaller, and smaller parking spaces means more spaces per square foot of garage.  Parking garages would still need ramps, but they could be narrowed and tightened, thus adding to space available to shoehorn more cars in (theoretically) complete safety to both panel and finish.

Given the top-level corporate interest, the amount of money already invested and the determination of these and future players to fulfill the promise (and reap the profits) of this new technology, the debacle of the original attempt to “pigeon-hole” parked cars is not likely to be repeated.  This almost-certain future has enormous ramifications, not just for the automobile industry, but also for parking operators, urban planners and entire cities.

As the technology becomes prevalent, we can expect familiar historical patterns to recur.  Some advocates will see in autonomous parking the “solution” to downtown parking woes, and thus promote it loudly, to sympathetic (and deep-pocketed) interest groups.  At the other end of the spectrum, some will oppose it as only exacerbating the other side of the urban grid/automobile conundrum—traffic congestion, or just for extending the historical dominance of the automobile in the U.S.  Some in “the middle” may embrace it as a compromise, shrinking the footprint of parking in urban areas, perhaps without even reducing the total number of spaces available (a true siren song, that magical solution that would “benefit” everyone).  The variations on these basic, oft-repeating responses will be both wide spread and numerous.  They will be offered by those ostensibly well-qualified to offer an opinion (which I certainly am not), but even if you become involved in the details of any of these possibilities, this historian urges you all to, somewhere in a corner of your mind, remember that “the more things change…”