Fear of Parking

Randy I. Atlas

Randy Atlas will expand on security issues in parking facilities in his presentation at the Parking Industry Exhibition to be held the end of March in Chicago.

During my career, I have noted that major errors in the design and operation of parking facilities arise from the mindset that these are merely stables for vehicles and not places where human behavior occurs.
Among the resulting problems from this shortsighted design approach can be an environment with numerous hiding spaces, as well as poor visibility created by high walls, structural columns and multiple levels. Even worse, subsurface or underground parking facilities often include no outside visibility.
Another typical problem is poor entrance and exit planning, with signage that does not help users move quickly or logically through the facility. Often, pedestrian access points fail to provide natural surveillance from the sidewalk through the garage door, and perimeter access by persons walking or driving is usually unsupervised.
Parking facilities also fall into the trap of applying the same access protocol across the board without factoring in staffing patterns, late evening checkouts or other site-specific use considerations. Often, electronic security measures for surveillance and access control are inadequate or absent.
Finally, the facility is usually dirty and poorly maintained. Vandalism, graffiti and general disrepair send a clear signal to potential criminals and other undesired users that the site is fair game. At the same time, it makes legitimate users feel afraid. If they stay away out of fear, then no sense of territoriality will develop, and those users won’t feel any involvement in keeping undesired users away.
Parking areas can avoid these problems if they use the precepts of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED). By following CPTED principles, security can lead criminals to see parking facilities as places where they will be observed and where suspicious behavior will be challenged.
CPTED incorporates five principles. The first is the use of natural surveillance. Sites are designed so that users can see farther and wider, making it harder for criminals to hide or carry out their activities. The second is the creation of natural access control, including spatial definition that encourages legitimate site users and discourages illegitimate ones. The third principle is the encouragement of territorial behaviors by legitimate users. The fourth is management and maintenance of the facilities to meet industry standards of care. The fifth CPTED principle is legitimate activity support, and encouraging and attracting legitimate and legal users and uses.
Vulnerability Assessment
The first step toward parking lot security through CPTED is to conduct a security vulnerability assessment. Generally, in the United States, the standard of care dictates that the assessment include a criminal history of the site; a review of landscaping, lighting, stairwells, elevators, surveillance capabilities, access control equipment and signage; and an inspection of revenue collection, supervision and restroom facilities. The policies and procedures for the operation and staffing of the parking facility should also be scrutinized.
Many “who, why, what, when, where and how” questions should be asked, including: What type of community does this parking facility serve – shoppers, commuters, students or employees? How many cars frequent the facility and how quickly do spaces turn over? Are there clear lines of sight? Are there obstructions by walls, columns or ramps? What are the hours of operation and how do those hours affect the user environment? Is the lighting all or mostly natural or is it manmade? Is manmade lighting at ceiling height? If so, what is the color of the ceilings and how are the lights placed? Is there a CCTV system, and if so, what are the details of the system? Are there ground-floor protection measures, such as gates, screens and barriers?
Additional questions should address vehicle and pedestrian entrances; whether they require mobility paths for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance; and whether there is selective closing of lightly used areas.
On the Ground
At the ground level, garages need to define the perimeter and control access to deter unwanted pedestrian-level access to the facility. Controls can take the form of fencing, level changes, ground floor protection, and other architectural and environmental barriers that channel people to designated entry points and discourage others from hiding outside and inside the property or buildings.
Plantings that are higher than 3 feet should not be placed within 10 to 15 feet of entrances to prevent hiding spots. Mature trees should be pruned to 8 feet. Traffic engineers often encourage multiple access points to increase circulation patterns. However, this may not be the best approach. The more entrances there are, the more difficult it is to control the users and uses of the facility.
Unfortunately, it is often forgotten that while parking garages are designed to move cars in an orderly and efficient way, these cars are providing a means for people to arrive at a destination. Pedestrian access is one of the most commonly overlooked and poorly thought out design features of parking facilities.
For example, full handicap accessibility is a key design consideration that should include dedicated handicap spaces, ramps, railings and floor surfaces. Parking garages must include pedestrian crossovers and dedicated pedestrian paths, as well as adequate stair design. The location and design of elevators also need careful consideration.
A primary rule is to avoid forcing pedestrians to cross the paths of the cars whenever possible. When such encounters are unavoidable, the design should create a safe passage for persons to move along until they come to a marked crosswalk that cautions drivers to take notice.
In the summer of 2006 at the City Place Mall in West Palm Beach, FL, a parking attendant observed two men loitering suspiciously in the parking garage. She locked herself in the booth, but she did not have a radio or telephone to call for assistance. The robbers broke in with a baseball bat, beat the attendant and took the contents of her cash drawer.
Attendants, such as the woman in this case, are thought of as guardians of the garage, but they are often targets of crime, because criminals believe that they hold the money. To protect these workers, attendant booths need to be situated in an area with a 360-degree field of view; to be monitored and recorded by CCTV; and to possess security glazing, duress alarms and drop safes with signage advertising that the attendant cannot retrieve money.
The booths must also have adequate levels of security lighting with placement to support CCTV coverage. Lighting should be dimmable to allow a guard to see outside at night. The attendant’s restroom should be located near the attendant booth in an area open to surveillance opportunities. The bathrooms should have open maze type “lazy S” entrances that allow cries for assistance to be heard. Panic alarms and motion-activated lighting should also be installed.
Structural Elements
If a facility is being newly built, then structural support elements should be round rather than rectangular. A round column allows for much greater visibility around the corners than a rectangular or square column. Also, the most CPTED-oriented ramp design is an exterior loop that allows floors to be level and to preserve unobstructed lines of sight. Where solid walls are needed, portholes with screening, windows or openings wherever possible should be incorporated to create an openness that encourages and enables casual observation.
Stairwells and elevators should be located centrally and should be visible from the attendant’s position. However, the sides of many parking garages are enclosed to hide the perceived unsightliness of cars. In these structures, where stairways and elevators can exist in blind spots, CCTV should be placed to monitor comings and goings, and panic alarms and door position switches should be installed to alert the toll booth attendant that someone is in a stairwell.
Elevators, like stairwells, should incorporate as much glass and high-visibility placement as structurally possible. For example, glass-walled elevators placed along the exterior of the building provide for good natural visibility by persons on the street and within the garage. In addition, elevators should have intercom capability to comply with ADA accessibility guidelines, as well as audible alarms in case of a breakdown.
CCTV cameras should be placed in areas with constant light (daylight or luminaries) to provide proper illumination for the lens. Low-light cameras can be used, but they are more expensive and represent a tacit admission that lighting conditions might be poor. Cameras should be placed to achieve an unhindered view of the area. On surface parking lots, cameras should have good lines of light and cover as much ground as possible. The cameras should be protected within dark polycarbonate domes. Cameras with this feature are less likely to be vandalized. The dark domes also help obscure where the cameras are directed.
CCTV systems in parking facilities need to be monitored in real time and digitally recorded for playback and enhancement. Cameras should be color, rather than black and white, to make it easier to identify specific vehicles and persons, especially in the playback mode. The use of color can make a significant difference if a crime occurs and the garage operators want to recover important evidence.
Panic-button call boxes should be integrated with the video surveillance system, allowing a camera to be activated when a call box is pushed. CCTV systems can also be integrated into the access control system so that license plate numbers can be entered into a log when vehicles enter or exit the parking facility.
Without good lighting, CCTV systems become relatively useless and natural surveillance is impaired. Lighting in garages is addressed in detail in the IESNA G-1-03 security lighting guidelines. The guidelines generally recommend lighting levels of 5 to 6 foot-candles in gathering areas such as stairways, elevators and ramps. Walkways around garages should be about 5 foot-candles. A minimum of 3 foot-candles should be used in open parking lots, such as in retail shopping areas, as well as in parking lots for hotels, motels and apartment buildings. Entrances should have 10 foot-candles of lighting or twice the level of lighting in the surrounding area to make them stand out and increase visibility. Perimeter fencing should have at least one-half foot-candle of average horizontal illumination on both sides to reduce hiding spots.
The interior of parking garages should be painted in light colors to increase reflectivity of the luminaries. Luminaries should use polycarbonate lenses for vandal and break resistance. Maintenance protocol should be established to ensure that damaged lights are repaired and that burned out bulbs are replaced in a timely manner; there should be a schedule for replacing existing bulbs based on their known life expectancy.
Guardhouses and paths to garages must be illuminated to provide clear and unobstructed mobility paths. Lighting should be approximately 3 foot-candles to allow visibility of persons from at least 30 feet away, with an average-to-minimum uniformity ratio not to exceed 4:1.
Parking facility signage should be well lighted, with letters or symbols that are a minimum of 8 inches high. Wall signage for pedestrian and vehicular traffic should be graphic whenever possible to ensure universal understanding and provide a sense of clear direction.
Illegitimate signage
Graffiti in parking environments is a form of illegitimate signage, which often means that gangs or vandals loiter there. It should be removed as quickly as possible. The CPTED-minded architect can also take steps to discourage graffiti. Wall surfaces can be coated with graffiti-resistant epoxy paint, and lighting levels can be increased in problem areas to allow for natural surveillance. The specific steps security takes are not as important as the decision to act. Efforts to prevent graffiti tell vandals that the property is the territory of its rightful owners.

Randy I. Atlas, Ph.D., AIA, CPP, is a vice president of Atlas Safety and Security Design. He can be reached at

This article was excerpted from a piece originally run in the February 2008 issue of Security Management Magazine.


It has been estimated that as much as 40% of rapes and assaults take place in parking lots. Major errors in the design and operation of parking facilities arise from the mindset that these are merely stables for vehicles and not places where human behavior occurs.
The problems resulting from this shortsighted design approach can include an environment with numerous hiding spaces, as well as poor visibility created by high walls, structural columns and multiple levels. Even worse, subsurface or underground parking facilities often include no outside visibility.

Article Abstract from March, 2008

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