Parking Drives Transit Movement
The memorable lyrics of Joni Mitchell's hit song Big Yellow Taxi became a rallying cry for the environmental movement: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
Almost 40 years later, the industry behind often vilified concrete structures such as parking lots and garages has joined the movement and now is a central player in the push to get people out of their cars.
Parking garages have become key to the success of transit lines, developments that emphasize transit, and suburban town centers - all popular with environmental groups and others who support reduced dependence on the automobile.
Without abundant parking near transit stations in suburban areas, people won't bother to hop on subways and trains, says Martin Stein, president of the 1,200-member National Parking Association, which is meeting near Washington, D.C., this week.
"The perception of convenience is very important," Stein says.
Transit-oriented developments - compact clusters of residences, stores, restaurants and businesses near a public transit station - are designed to encourage people to leave their cars home, walk from dinner to the movies or jump on the train to go to work.
"There is this whole dynamic and irony at play here," says Gloria Ohland, vice president for communications at Reconnecting America, a national non-profit group that promotes giving consumers more housing and transportation choices. "Unless there are parking spaces, you're not going to get people to use transit."
Parking and transit now go hand-in-hand.
"Forty percent of the projects we're doing right now involve planning and conceptual design of parking in transit-oriented developments," says Dave Rich, director of business development for Rich&Associates, parking consultant based in Southfield, Mich.
"It's a growing segment of the industry," he says.
"Green" is the new black in planning, design and construction philosophy and it's no different for the parking industry. Parking designers are embracing practices such as using recycled materials, solar panels and energy-saving lighting and turning concrete rooftops into green surfaces to reduce storm-water runoff.
"Any parking garage nowadays that we're involved in from a design standpoint balances constraints of a budget with the desire and philosophy of a green building," says Rich, whose firm designed the Blue Cross Blue Shield garage in downtown Detroit, one of the first parking garages to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council.
Some garages are using motion sensors in wireless lighting systems and creating preferred parking spots for alternative-fuel vehicles, says Gary Cudney, president of Carl Walker Inc., parking consultants in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Designing a green garage often simply comes down to a layout that "eases accessibility and minimizes the waiting time for people to exit a garage," Rich says.
Technology plays a big role: Pay-on-foot kiosks that eliminate fumbling for money at the exit booth, engines running; signs that alert drivers to levels with vacant spots to eliminate the need to circle; systems that allow drivers to pay for parking from their cellphones.
There are limits, however, to garages' eco-consciousness.
"No matter how green a parking structure is, it still means people are driving, and it's driving that's responsible for 30% to 40% of all greenhouse-gas emissions," Ohland says.
The emergence of parking garages as more Earth-friendly cogs in development is even on display in an exhibit opening this week at the National Building Museum in Washington. Exhibit title: House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage.
"Parking garages are no longer just utilitarian buildings but part of the urban fabric," Rich says.