Hollywood loves to portray cars hurtling down garage ramps and across parking decks as bystanders dive out of the way. Or to use a parking garage as the scary setting in which an attacker kills an unsuspecting and helpless victim as he returns to his car. If your perception of parking structures is based on what you see on TV and in the movies, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that these are deadly buildings where disaster is just around the corner.
Of course, the reality isn’t quite so grim—or at least it doesn’t have to be. There is nothing inherently unsafe about parking facilities. Yet there are thousands of parking structures throughout the United States that pose serious safety hazards because they weren’t designed with safety in mind. All too often, parking areas have been treated as an afterthought by building owners and designers, and security has suffered as a result.
There are two primary safety threats in a parking structure: crime and vehicles hitting pedestrians. Designers can reduce both threats through careful planning in the design phase that focuses on key aspects: design, lighting, access control, CCTV, and audio monitoring.
Parking safety begins with the layout and design of the parking structure, and the key is visibility. High visibility within and from outside parking facilities can greatly reduce safety risks.
When laying out a parking facility, it is important to establish lines of sight between exits and parking areas. For example, if a pedestrian walks down an aisle and reaches a point where he or she must turn toward an elevator or stair tower, the person should be able to see both the elevator and his or her vehicle from that point.
By permitting patrons to maintain orientation within the structure, designers can avoid forcing them to wander within the garage, which in turn reduces the risk of people being struck by a vehicle or attacked by an intruder.
Maintaining this line of sight can be difficult, however, depending on the topography. For example, often designers are forced to slope the floor of a garage to compensate for a slope in the exterior landscape. Parking structures are typically constructed of multiple modules, which are placed side by side to create the garage. If the slope were placed in the center module of a three-module garage, it would be impossible to see from one side of the structure to the other across the modules.
When possible, architects should avoid placing the slope in the center module and should instead move it to one of the outermost sections, where one side of the garage is visible from outside the structure. This affords the parker greater safety, because in addition to being seen by passersby, daylight from the outside offers greater visibility and can somewhat compensate for the reduced safety inside the structure.
Elevator lobbies. Lobbies leading to elevators should include as much glass as possible to improve visibility within and from outside the structure. In addition, if possible, some part of the lobbies should face a public area, such as a street, to make them visible from the outside.
Additionally, the elevators themselves should include glass-backed shafts and glass cabs facing public areas. Glass permits others to see who is in the elevator, thus minimizing the risk of attacks.
Stairways. The same need for visibility holds true for stairways. In the past, fire codes required stairways to be entirely enclosed in masonry. Today, however, most codes permit as much glass as possible on the exterior side, away from the building. This code change allows the use of glass to enhance visibility.
Furthermore, many codes now permit completely open stairways on the outside of the building. Finally, the underside of stairways on the ground level should always be sealed off to eliminate a potential hiding place for attackers.
Spaces and aisles. Careful configuration of parking spaces and aisles reduces possible hiding places for criminals and enhances pedestrian space. Wider aisles provide more shared room for parkers, allowing pedestrians to walk down the center of the aisle when there is no traffic rather than directly adjacent to parked cars.
The main factor affecting aisle width is the degree of angle of parking spaces. The most efficient layout for 45 degree angle spaces has the narrowest aisles at approximately 12 feet. While this configuration maximizes space in small areas, it is not ideal for safety.
It is best to put parking spaces at 90 degree angles, because it results in driving aisles that are 24 to 26 feet wide, which allows parkers to walk to and from their vehicles without having to walk too close to parked cars.
Landscaping. While landscaping can enhance the appearance of the facility, care must be taken to ensure that it doesn’t create unsafe areas where people can hide. The safest approach is to avoid bushes, relying instead on low-profile shrubs that are spaced far enough apart from each other that they don’t create a visual blockade.
Lighting. Bright lighting is one of the most effective deterrents to both accidents and attacks. Today, most garages are designed with high lighting levels of at least 10 to 12 foot candles over parked cars and 15 to 20 foot candles in walking and drive aisles.
Public areas, such as lobbies and stairs and elevator towers, should feature even brighter lighting. For example, the lighting within 50 feet of stairs and elevators should be increased to 40 foot candles of light to create a brighter, safer area. This is particularly true in underground garages, where there is no natural supplemental light.
Entrances into parking structures should feature at least 60 foot candles of illumination to ease the transition from a bright exterior into the garage. That also helps to reduce blind spots.
It is also advisable to install high lighting levels to illuminate the exterior of the parking facility, particularly in areas that experience high pedestrian traffic, such as college campuses, hospital campuses, and downtown locations. As a rule, exterior lights should be placed approximately 12 feet above ground, and they should point downward to illuminate wide areas along the ground.
Another method for increasing visibility is to paint the walls of the structure white to reflect light. Lighting fixtures should also be strategically placed to bounce light off the walls and reduce dark corners where criminals could hide.
Parking structures should be designed to minimize miscellaneous entry points at ground floor levels. The only entry points should be automobile entrances and pedestrian access to elevators and stairs. Today, many garages use decorative metal screens, enclosing the ground floor to provide a barrier that prevents unauthorized entry. Additionally, many modern parking structures that lead to office buildings have card access doors in elevator lobbies to restrict after-hours access.
Often it is necessary to have multiple auto entry points for peak-time traffic. In these cases, rolling shutters can be used to close off extra access points once the peak-time traffic has subsided.
Recent technological advancements have led to the development of quick-access roll-ups and quick-access bifold doors, which have dramatically reduced the time it takes for the doors to open and close. With these systems, an access card is inserted and the door opens within seven seconds, then immediately closes. This system is a vast improvement over traditional roll-up doors that take anywhere from 20 to 25 seconds to come back down again, allowing time for unauthorized individuals to follow cars into the building on foot.
Among the most common—and useful—active security tools are CCTV and sound-monitoring technologies that permit security personnel to constantly keep an eye—and ear—on activity throughout a parking facility. However, if these technologies are installed, it is essential that they be monitored at all times. Otherwise, in the case of an attack on a patron, the structure’s owner would be at greater risk for legal liability.
Cameras. Generally, when the parking floor is only 200 to 250 feet long, only one camera needs to be used at the end of each aisle. For floors over 250 to 400 feet long, a second camera can be placed midway down the aisle so that the cameras don’t have to be manipulated for telephoto or tilt zoom. Cameras should also be positioned to capture activity in and around elevator lobbies and in stairwells.
The best option is to use fixed cameras, with fixed lenses, and a few cameras with tilt-zoom capability. Coverage should include cross-aisle cameras that can capture footage from a variety of angles. Cameras should, however, be positioned to avoid direct bright sunlight over the course of the day, generally facing north or east.
Sound. Audio systems consist of combined speakers and microphones, which should be placed strategically throughout the garage and connected to a panel board in the security office. If someone shouts or screams, security personnel can identify the exact location of the incident and communicate with the person who is involved to evaluate the situation.
These systems are also useful for communicating with people who are observed walking through the garage without an identifiable destination. Security personnel can ask if they are lost or if they need some other type of assistance. This type of polite inquiry can serve to warn questionable individuals that they are being observed.
Putting It Together
To show how all of these elements can come together, let’s look at the new parking structure at the Chicago Veterans Affairs Hospital, which my company both designed and manages. It is a 1,600-car facility open 24 hours a day.
Because the parking garage is located in an area where crime is an ongoing problem, security was a key design consideration. The structure features glass lobbies and elevator towers, as well as four stairwells with glass exteriors, all of which provide visibility from outside of the structure.
Additionally, the ground floor has a decorative steel grille that seals off openings, and all entries and exits are controlled by rolling steel shutters. The cashier booths serving these lanes are monitored with CCTV. The only exception is a single entry/exit area for monthly cardholders, which is controlled with quick acting bifolds.
To cover the parking areas, 84 cameras were used, and sound-monitoring devices were placed every 60 feet. This monitoring system ensures that all the areas can be seen and communicated with at all times.
Because the facility is open to both transient and permit parkers, separate entrances were designated for each. From 11:00 p.m. until 5:30 a.m., permit parkers use their access card to open a bifold door. Transient parkers must go through a 24-hour cashier station to obtain a ticket before their entry door will be opened.
The cashier station is between the transient exit and entry lane. Four cameras are focused on drivers, and two more are focused on inbound and outbound traffic lanes, providing security for the station. One camera is set up for higher vehicles and one for normal vehicles, and they are trained on drivers so that their faces can be seen and stored in the security station, which is located in the structure’s management office.
The cashier also has a silent alarm under the counter. Anyone entering the structure has to show a picture ID, and the driver’s name and ID are recorded before a ticket is dispensed and the rolling shutter is raised to allow entry into the garage. All permit vehicles are monitored with a fifth camera, which also records each driver’s face.
Particular concern is given to the safety of the cashier. All four cameras are visible to drivers, and signs warning that “all transactions are being recorded on videotape” are mounted in clear view.
All 84 cameras, plus the ones at the cashier station, are digitally recorded. Images are stored for approximately 50 days.
These security measures proved their value last October when a thief struck the hospital and tried to escape through the parking facility. Parking security staff were able to use the cameras to follow the thief’s movement throughout the garage, then direct police to a vehicle on the third floor under which he was hiding.
An additional benefit of this system is that security officers can also monitor erratic walking or driving, which is common for patients who receive heavy doses of medication while in the hospital. This way, anyone who might not be able to drive safely can be approached before they leave the garage.
The importance of security cannot be overstated. Just one accident or attack inside a parking structure can have a devastating impact not only on the victim but also on the owners.
Unfortunately, security and safety problems are common because many structures weren’t designed with security in mind. Today there is no reason for any parking structure to be unsafe. While it’s true that a secure environment can be costly, the cost of inaction can be infinitely greater.
The importance of security in a parking area cannot be overstated. Just one accident or attack inside a parking garage can have a devastating impact both in terms of physical harm to the victim and financial and reputational cost to the owner.
Unfortunately, many structures weren’t designed with security in mind. However, today there is no reason for any parking structure to be unsafe. There are numerous strategies and tools available to ensure that new structures can be secure and that older garages can be improved and made safer. While it’s true that some of these security tools can be costly, the cost of inaction can be infinitely greater.
There are two primary safety threats in a parking structure. One major threat is that of vehicles hitting pedestrians. The other is crime. Vsibility helps to reduce both threats. For example, lobbies leading to elevators should include as much glass as possible to improve visibility within. The same applies to stairwells.
Designers sometimes inadvertently create potential hiding places for attackers. These hiding places can be avoided with good lighting and attention to landscaping. Careful configuration of parking spaces and aisles reduces possible hiding places for criminals and enhances pedestrian space. The only entry points should be automobile entrances and pedestrian access to elevators and stairs.
In addition, access control, CCTV, and sound monitoring are other devices that can be incorporated to enhance the safety of any parking facility. The best option is to use fixed cameras, with fixed lenses, and a few cameras with tilt-zoom capability. Cameras should, however, be positioned to avoid direct bright sunlight over the course of the day, generally facing north or east. Entrances into parking structures should feature at least 60 foot candles of illumination to ease the transition from a bright exterior into the garage.
Richard C. (Dick) Rich, PE (professional engineer), is president of Rich and Associates. He is also president of Medpark Management, a company that manages parking facilities throughout the United States. A registered engineer, Rich pioneered many of the approaches that have become standard elements of parking design.