By Michael F. Watkins
Whether at work, at home in a multi-unit building, at the store, or on campus, most drivers need a space to park their vehicle. Calculations vary, but according to one parking expert writing for The New York Times, space available nationwide for parking cars is substantial enough to be its own state, occupying an area roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Another estimate puts the number of parking spaces in this country at 800 million, or three spaces are available for every automobile. According to another estimate, parking structures offer roughly 100 million spaces. Regardless of where cars are parked, the places where people leave their vehicles dominate the country’s urban/suburban landscape.
These parking structures have become a major design consideration for architects over the past several decades. Although many facilities are freestanding, a large number of parking garages are attached to buildings in urban areas, suburbs, and exurbia. Chicago residents and fans of the 1970s Bob Newhart Show are familiar with the 65-story Bertrand Goldberg-designed Marina City Towers shown in the opening. Clearly visible and integrated into the building’s twin cylindrical design are the 19 floors of exposed spiral parking ramp.
The idea behind attaching a parking structure to a building is to provide convenience and security to tenants, employees, and visitors. Though few buildings offer valet parking—an amenity of the Marina City Towers—an increasing number of parking structures are installing high-speed doors to improve convenience and security.
Traditionally, parking structures were seen as minimal standalone buildings without human, aesthetic, or integrative considerations—giving parking a poor public perception and frequently disrupting the existing urban fabric. However, many architects, engineers, and planners now envision and construct far more attractive facilities—integrating structures better with their surroundings and serving the needs of their users.
Their imaginative designs include attention to the vehicle doors that provide building access. Depending on the specific use of the structure, access accommodations range from gates controlled at a manned booth to automated doors activated by coded access, motion detectors, or a payment system.
Parking structures can be more conducive for crime than many other locations because they not only have low foot traffic, but also have cars, pillars, and recessed areas to provide hiding places and offer temptation for those with crime on their mind. When asked to rank the top three most important considerations when making a parking decision, the majority of respondents in a recent survey cited were cost (34 percent), security (29 percent), and location (25 percent).
At the parking structure attached to the dormitories at Georgia Tech, the only access is through the vehicle doorways, says Lance Lunsway, the school’s director of transportation/parking.
“We had old-style steel parking garage doors that were extremely slow, which wasted time for our students and visitors,” he says. “The slow operation of the doors interfered with traffic flow, so we had to leave them open during high-traffic hours.”
The consequences of such unsecured doorways can be costly. Liability Consultants (Sudbury, Massachusetts) conducted a study of more than 1000 security lawsuits over a 10-year period. In almost one-third of cases reviewed, the basis of the lawsuit was a murder, rape, robbery, or assault that occurred in a parking lot or garage. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) found one in 10 property crimes and one in 14 violent crimes took place either in parking lots or parking structures.
According to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), parking facilities comprise a large area with relatively low levels of activity—making violent crime more likely to occur there than in other commercial facilities. Many areas in parking lots, such as the space between parked cars and in stairwells, are poorly lit. This kind of environment (and many scenes in TV and movies) cause many people to be wary of walking alone through parking garages.
Despite the parking garage’s vulnerabilities, facility owners are fighting back and making their facilities safer places with some basic strategies to protect people, assets, and the building’s reputation. These start with keeping the facility well-maintained—a rundown space looks unsafe and gives intruders the impression the building is not monitored.