Mirror. Signal. Change

Almost 100 years ago the Model T Ford (the world’s first mass produced car) started to roll off the production lines. This was an event which was to reshape our culture, our lifestyle, our economies and our environment – from the creation of millions of jobs, motorways and car centric cities (think Milton Keynes), to drive-in food outlets, shopping malls and how brand-conscious consumers define themselves.

Therefore, will the government’s recent announcement of an air quality plan, the subsequent intention to ban new diesel and petrol cars by 2040 and the impact of automotive technology (from electric cars to ride hailing developments) be the catalyst which will have as profound an impact on civilisation as the start of production of Model T Ford.

Cars will soon be viewed far more as a (transport) service than a brand and ownership statement and our relationship with this inanimate object will continue to evolve – from thoughtful but reluctant adoption, to indispensable alter ego, to social and environmental pariah, to relic of a bygone age in just two/three generations.

If so, what does this mean for property professionals.

Some say that there will be progressive evolution – such as the continued existence of motorways, but the emergence of more service stations to cater for the need to charge electric cars more frequently - or to change power packs.

Others, reflecting on the demands of our changing demographics, envisage the need for more city centre living for retirees being met by the creative conversion of unwanted ‘downtown’ carparks into affordable accommodation with easy access to restaurants, theatre and all those things our affluent seniors require.

What about the future of traditional car production facilities and the plethora of service and maintenance companies which face the prospect of a significant decline in fortunes caused by the onset of simpler electric tech-rich cars, with fewer moving parts to go wrong, replace or service. 

The knock-on effect

There will be serious sector specific repercussions as well.

Take the airport sector for example: across the globe, over 30% of non-aeronautical revenue is derived from car related activities – such as parking and car rental. Improvements in public transport, the growing attraction of affordable ride hailing and the impending arrival of driver-less cars (which take themselves home after dropping you at the airport) will make a serious dent in the sector’s revenue model and force them to be more creative about how they use their space.

Many airports are already planning and piloting innovative experiential marketing strategies, as well as attracting companies looking for superb transport connections. The Circle development at Zurich airport for example (12 minutes from “downtown”), goes a step further. It offers an integrated business and lifestyle scheme of offices, hotels with convention centres, health clinics, various brand worlds, art, culture, restaurants, education facilities and parking.

However, whilst talk of the demise of the car might be slightly premature, it does looks inevitable.

A disrupted future

If cars were the precursor to disruptive technology, then perhaps evolving technological developments will result in our industry changing beyond all recognition over the next 20 years.

Given the fact that developments such as Purple Bricks have already impacted the agency market and BIM and smart building technology will continue to impact the lives of property managers, perhaps the mechanical side of valuation activities for example will be replaced by apps – similar to those which are already threatening to disrupt the livelihoods of conveyancers and auditors.

How we use, own, manage and access our ‘space’ is already changing at breakneck speed. Consider:

  • The re-shaping of London in terms of new infrastructure and working practices
  • The emergence of intellectual and business ‘hubs’ - across the UK
  • Institutional investors such as M&G swapping business park investments for core assets in larger centres
  • Specialist funds and developers re-positioning some business parks into mixed schemes incorporating residential.

Town planners, developers and major landowners are already being challenged to deliver more integrated solutions to accommodate the needs of an ageing and growing urban population, as well as the increase in leisure, agile working practices and internet retail-led logistics and delivery techniques and facilities.

But perhaps the most profound evolution will result from the rise of automated transportation in terms of reshaping urban environments, providing a raft of opportunities to remodel and re-use car-related premises such as car parks, garages and workshops. It is interesting to note that the definition of “prime location” is already in the process of being redefined.

Perhaps our sector is facing as systematic a shift in culture, skills and attitude as those artisan workers did over 100 years ago when they lay down their tools, left their workshops and headed for the new factories which were mushrooming around them.


James Routledge
James Routledge 20 September 2017

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