Magazine

Automated Parking: Is It Right for You?

Gary Cudney

Automated parking made a splash in the United States a few years ago when the City of Hoboken, NJ, began constructing the first fully automated parking facility utilizing new computer technology. There had been some mechanical lift type structures built in the past but nothing in recent years using technology developed for automatic storage buildings or for automatic parking found in Europe or Southeast Asia.
There are as many as 15 companies who claim they will produce automated parking facilities in the United States in recent advertisements in Parking Today and other parking magazine. Some of the manufacturers have united to form the Automated and Mechanical Parking Association.
You may have noticed that automated parking has been given much publicity by the parking magazines. Interestingly, the oldest article found in a search by the author was in the November/December 1996 edition of Parking Today and the second was in the September 1998 issue of the same magazine titled, "Automatic Garages Are on the Way." This article title begs the question: "What is taking so long for the automatic parking industry to 'take off' in the United States?"
One reason for this is that the Hoboken project was plagued with very public construction problems, and then became embroiled in contractual and legal issues. Though these problems are long past, it seems the Hoboken project gave the emerging industry enough negative publicity that a "wait and see" mentality resulted and this significantly delayed the development of the automated parking market. Other reasons include their higher construction cost compared to conventional parking lots or ramped structures (but this may be offset by the potential for lower land costs per space and the system manufacturers claim that operating and maintenance cost will be less than for a conventional ramped parking structure), self-park parking structures, concerns about breakdown, and uncertainty about operating and maintenance costs.
A boost
The industry should now get a boost from the opening of the 312-space Hoboken facility as well as the opening last July of a 74-space automated facility in Washington, DC, for an apartment building. The Washington, DC, project became the first of the new generation of automated facilities to open in the United States because of the delays in Hoboken.
Despite the slow start for the automatic parking industry in this country, it appears there is a market for them and that more will be built in the near future. Parking Today continues to promote the technology, and for three consecutive years gave special attention to it at the PIE Conference. The manufacturers continue to market their products and provide owners and developers with proposals for new automated parking facilities. Automated Parking is another means of satisfying the parking needs of a building, neighborhood, central business district, campus, airport, etc. That is why it is important for the parking industry to understand this technology and consider it as a solution in situations where it makes sense.
I traveled to Europe in March 2002 to observe automated parking in operation. A very impressive facility that was visited is a 400-space automated parking project in Vigo, Spain, on the Atlantic coast just south of Portugal. This facility is owned by the city and serves the downtown retail district. The structure is underground, beneath a plaza deck adjacent to the bay and a marina.
Vigo, Spain
The Vigo automated parking facility is configured so that every parked vehicle is accessible by redundant equipment such as horizontal movement shuttles, vertical movement lifts and the transfer compartments. They even have redundant emergency generators. This level of redundancy assures that a breakdown of one piece of equipment will not shut down the retrieval of vehicles, but only slow the process down.
The facility has eight entry/exit compartments, four vehicle lifts and eight shuttles. The typical retrieval time is about two minutes. However, it took about four minutes for our vehicle to be retrieved as we waited while two inbound vehicles were moved by the lift before bringing our vehicle to the cabin. Nevertheless, four minutes is not objectionable when compared to the time it would take to walk to a vehicle and drive out of a conventional ramped parking structure.
The Vigo facility has operated continually without downtime for three years, so the European manufacturer is now recommending significant cost savings on new facilities by eliminating the redundant systems. John Broad of Broad AutoPark, the Detroit, MI-based representative of the manufacturer, says user concerns about equipment breakdown are best addressed not with redundant shuttles and lifts, but with regular preventative maintenance on a contract basis and the use of redundant electrical components and operating computers. They also configure the facility so that one lift serves about 100 spaces. If an individual lift required service, spaces served by other lifts would still be in operation. Further, the onsite stocking of adequate spare parts such as motors, gearboxes, sensors, limit switches, wheels, etc., will help eliminate downtime.
Ideal market
I toured the Hoboken facility in December of last year. Like the Vigo project, it is fully redundant. It was impressive that the desperate parking needs of the residential neighborhood could be met on a tiny 100-foot-square site that provides more than 300 spaces. The facility has four entry/exit compartments, two lifts and 14 shuttles on seven parking levels. Robotic Parking, the manufacturer, has received rave reviews from the users and the opening was even featured on CNN.
One ideal market for automatic parking seems to be smaller facilities between 80 and several hundred spaces on small land parcels not sufficient in size for an economical conventional parking structure. If the site is less than 100 feet wide and the length is less than 180 feet long, then automated parking may make sense. Ideally the facility would not have high peak hour entry and exit volumes and would have a very high percentage of repeat users (due to the confusion that comes when unfamiliar parkers first use this type of system).
One likely market is the conversion of existing buildings located in dense urban areas into residential units where other more traditional means of parking are not available due to the lack of land for parking lots or conventional ramped structures. Other uses for this technology include new residential developments, offices, airports, universities or hospitals that are landlocked; valet parking; doctor parking; and other monthly parking uses. Automatic facilities larger than a few hundred spaces are possible, but the entrance and exit capacity, queuing and vehicle retrieval times would need to be carefully studied.
Automated parking has many advantages, but it also has many disadvantages compared to conventional ramped parking structures, as shown in the chart nearby.
Advantages of Automated Parking Facilities
* Better perception of security because patrons do not walk to and from their space.
* Feasible for very small sites that cannot accommodate a conventional ramped parking structure.
* High parking efficiency (i.e. sf/space and cf/space).
* No driving while searching for an available space.
* Reduced emissions.
* Patrons wait for their car in a controlled environment.
* Less potential for vehicle vandalism.
* Minimal staff needed if used by familiar parkers.
* Retrieval time can be less than the combined driving/parking/walking time in conventional ramped parking structures.
* Easier facade integration without ramping floors or openings in exterior walls.

Potential Disadvantages of Automated Parking
Facilities
* Higher construction cost per space (but this may be offset by the potential for lower land costs per space and the system manufacturers claim that operating and maintenance cost will be less than for a conventional ramped parking structure).
* Redundant systems will result in a higher cost.
* Somewhat confusing for unfamiliar users.
* Not recommended for high peak hour volume
facilities.
* Fear of breakdown (How do I get my car out?).
* Uncertain building department review and approval process.
* Necessitates a maintenance contract with the
supplier.

So, is automated parking right for you? It depends. A qualified parking consultant can help compare your options and select the parking system that is best suited for your application.

Gary Cudney, P.E., is President of Carl Walker, Inc. He can be reached at gcudney@carlwalker.com

Article Abstract from May, 2003




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