Yesterday, Eric Jaffe of the Atlantic Cities tweeted to his colleague Emily Badger, "One day we'll find something that pleases the Cap'n." They both actually do write a lot that pleases me (such as the Transit Riders' Union post and retailers don't need parking to thrive), but I reserve the right to criticize. Like now, I'm going to criticize Badger's latest post, "Car Elevators: Not Just for Rich People" (from the slug, the working title was apparently something like "Why Car Elevators Should Be the Future of Parking").
My first criticism is that if you didn't know better, you might get the impression from the post that car elevators were a new thing, at least to New York City. In fact, we've had them all my life.
While looking for corroboration of this, I found a story from July about an attendant who drove someone's SUV into the elevator shaft in one of these garages, but the elevator wasn't there so he crashed down five stories and hit another attendant who was actually in the elevator. Fortunately, they both survived.
We also have the columnar car lifts that you see in so many Midtown parking lots:
Now these are not the individual car elevators promised to rich Chelsea condo owners or Mitt Romney, and they're not the automatic garages that Badger talks about. They're run by attendants: you drop your car off and give them the keys. They go park it, and when you're ready to pick it up they get it out for you. You don't have to drive your car in the elevator or wedge it into some tiny space.
This may be a bit less efficient than the Milstein automatic garages, but probably not much so. They're certainly a better use of space than the garages with lots of ramps that Badger compares to the automatic garages. But while elevator garages may not be just for the super-rich, I don't know who Badger thinks can afford to pay fifty dollars a day to store a car in the city, or even twenty-five. In my book, that's just for the rich.
The rest of Badger's argument - that "cars and people live in a constant competition for space," and that these automatic garages can help relieve that tension - doesn't hold up. First of all, cars don't live, outside of cartoon movies. The competition for space is between the small minority who want to drive and park their cars in the city, and everyone else who's just walking here. When minimum parking requirements don't apply, off-street space is allocated by supply and demand. If a developer can get more money from an apartment building than a parking lot, then you'll see that parking lot replaced by apartments. Making it easier for a few rich people to store their cars on top of each other isn't going to free up more space for walking and apartments. At best, it'll free up some more garage space so that the next income bracket can buy cars. Yay.
As Brooklyn Spoke wrote in the comments, unless the cars are entirely symbolic (in which case they're hugely inefficient symbols to keep in a city), people will need to transport them to and from these automatic garages on a regular basis. That means more cars on the streets, which means more pollution and carnage, and less space for pedestrians and transit. The main reason why dense cities are more efficient and less polluting is because people don't have to drive as much. If there are people who won't live in the city unless they can drive, then let them go bankrupt out in the suburbs. Cheering a technology that makes it easier for people to drive in dense cities is missing the point.
Car elevators are the past of parking, and the present. They may also be the future. But that's really nothing to applaud or get too excited about. With any luck, the future of parking will be that there's a whole lot less of it around, regardless of whether it's organized vertically or horizontally. And that's why any new parking should be convertible to other uses when the demand goes away. That's what the future of parking should be.