Chris Evans Rolton Group
Technology will be vital to future retail in making car parks flexible, multi-functional and smart, says Evans

The future of the retail car park

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Chris Evans

We are experiencing a period of momentous change within the automotive industry. A combination of increased automation, the electrification of transport, desire for reduction in air pollution and an increased connectivity mean that over the next decade we will see a seismic shift in the way we travel from A to B.

Electric vehicles currently make up just 2% of the global market but within the next five years, the increase in battery technology and types available will ensure that the price of EVs will be at parity with the internal combustion engine. As the infrastructure increases, the EV share of the market will soar.

In conjunction with this we will see a dramatic shift in how transport is operated. As part of a wider sharing economy trend, mobility as a service (MaaS) will become the norm and private vehicle ownership will decline. In turn, the consumer need for private parking will dramatically reduce. This distinct change in how we transport ourselves presents retailers, car park operators and planners with a challenge – how do we maximise one of our biggest assets, car park space?

Why the retail car park is changing

With the rise of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and the increasing pressure to reduce pollution, consumer behaviour towards transport is changing at a rapid pace. Many countries have announced upcoming bans on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and whilst older cars will still be on the road, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will be a viable choice for a wide range of drivers by 2030. But for the uptake to be sustainable, the onus is on real estate managers and the government to work together to deliver the infrastructure that’s needed to meet the rise in electric vehicle charging.

In addition to a network of EV charging points, the UK’s Department for Transport has unveiled a £40m plan to invest in the development of several different charging methods, including wireless charging systems to be embedded in car parks and along major highways to power up vehicles without the need for drivers to plug in. While these kind of Scalextric-style solutions may seem far off, Sweden has already installed the world’s first e-road and a similar system is being tested in China.

We know that preparing the infrastructure for the growth of BEVs is essential, but there is an altogether different trend that will impact the function of the retail car park as we know it. We can already see the increase in ridesharing as part of a wider shift towards the sharing economy. In Moscow, nine million of these journeys are already made on a daily basis, 30 times higher than at the start of 2018 and – in a bid to make the end-to-end transport experience as seamless as possible – Uber has added a ‘Transit’ feature to the app in some locations including London to show users public transport costs/options for their journey as well as offering its traditional ride-sharing service. What’s more, it is anticipated that by 2050, 80% of journeys will be ride-hailed connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs) and the widespread adoption of this mode of transport will bring distinct challenges to those who have not made strides to futureproof traditional retail car parks.

The role of technology in enhancing the human experience

Smart cityscapes are designed to be people-centric and enhance the human experience of urban life – not only by alleviating negative environmental impacts but by also improving the way people navigate the urban environment. Instead of being bystanders to the changing landscape, there is a huge opportunity for retailers, operators and planners to collaborate and maximise the technology at their fingertips.

To build destinations that cater for the evolving MaaS model of transportation, planners must harness the potential of the Internet of Things and integrate a smart infrastructure into car parks. Almost instantaneous data-transfer will enable vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-carpark communication enabling CAVs to run efficiently utilising blockchain technology. This type of transport model requires more of a logistical-style hub to operate effectively – one that involves creating dedicated drop-off zones to ensure CAVs avoid creating roadblocks as they are queuing to pick up shoppers.

The need for active asset management to develop future-proofed destinations

Instead of being bystanders to the changing landscape, there is a huge opportunity for planners and developers to collaborate and maximise the technology at their fingertips. Critical to this is providing solutions which are able to be repurposed, this should consider the future redevelopment of multi-storey car parks into student accommodation or the creation of multi-use leisure sites.

Car parks, by their very nature, have space to their advantage, but this space will amount to nothing if it can’t be filled or successfully transformed for alternate uses.

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In aspiring to understand the foundations needed to repurpose retail car parks, operators have the power to unlock the door to a new world of futureproofing. The floor-to-ceiling height of a building, for example, will determine whether a car park can be remodelled into accommodation or leisure facilities. Likewise, a car park with a slanted floor may just need to be knocked down which is so inflexible to one that has the correct floor to ceiling heights and minimal ramps.

In London, where nearly 50% of households don’t own a car, we’re already starting to see car parks being repurposed into art galleries. Meanwhile WePark groups are popping up globally – a movement which sees groups turning public parking spots into temporary office spaces. Whilst WePark may have started as a stunt, it highlights the clear opportunity for car park planners to maximise real estate and meet consumer demand for multi-functional spaces.

How remodelling car parks can support the rising demand in the energy needed to power EVs

Before property managers transform car parks in line with changing transport habits, they must recognise the changing power requirements which come with the advent of BEVs and CAVs. Decentralising energy – allowing energy to be generated and distributed where it’s needed – is key as more of us switch to BEVs and eventually CAVs. With hundreds of cars being plugged in at the same time, it would be naïve to assume that the existing grid can support such a huge energy demand. Retail car park owners cannot afford to overlook the risk of brownouts and energy shortages and must prioritise working with the government to strengthen energy infrastructure.

Ambitious growth plans lead to a significant increase in anticipated energy consumption and a robust strategy for energy infrastructure is critical. It is paramount that the infrastructure allows for flexibility of nodal charging of future ride-hailing CAVs, some of which will likely have a high power requirement.

Putting people at the heart of technological change

To survive in an ever-increasingly digital world, against a backdrop of changing consumer shopping and transport habits, it’s time for retail car park developers to embrace the change and evolve. Technology will be vital to future retail in making car parks flexible, multi-functional and smart, and the most successful will take a people-centric approach to the future-proofing of their projects to ensure their survival.

Chris Evans is deputy managing director of Rolton Group

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