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A Lot of Planning

Last fall, administrators at Colby College, Waterville, Maine, experienced their worst nightmare. A female student was abducted from a campus parking lot and subsequently found dead. The parking lot abduction wasn't an isolated incident. Across America, parking facilities and parking lots are the third-most-frequent setting for violent crimes — nearly 1,400 attacks take place each day.

Based on these numbers, it would be easy to assume that parking is inherently dangerous. The reality is that although many parking areas on school campuses are unsafe, they don't have to be.

Design mistakes

The No. 1 cause of unsafe campus parking design is inexperienced designers. Some campus planners treat parking as a simple issue — just pave over some land and you have a parking lot. Unfortunately, this common mistake often leads to disastrous consequences.

The biggest challenge in parking design is minimizing places for attackers to hide. Inexperienced designers may inadvertently create numerous hiding places behind vehicles, in stair or elevator towers, and in any number of nooks and crannies.

A second common design mistake revolves around collisions between vehicles and pedestrians. Whenever people and cars share space, a potential exists for accidents; inexperienced designers may create vehicle-pedestrian conflicts. These conflicts can be remedied easily through signage. Every parking garage and lot must have a comprehensive wayfinding signage package on every floor. Signs should direct pedestrians away from vehicle drive aisles, and toward stair and elevator towers and exits. At the same time, drivers should be directed to clearly marked drive aisles, and to and from parking areas.

Passive measures

Passive design approaches can make parking areas safer. The common denominator among the approaches is that they are intended to promote visibility. When parking patrons can see potential threats from a distance, they can take steps to avoid those threats. At the same time, if security measures are made clear and visible to criminals, they are far less likely to attempt an assault or abduction.

The design should focus first on lighting. It is important to make sure that existing lighting is sufficient, not only to illuminate driving and pedestrian areas, but also to eliminate shadows in which attackers can hide. Painting walls white can make bright lighting even more effective. By upgrading lighting in elevator and stair towers, campus planners also can improve safety for students as they come and go from parking facilities.

The type of lighting selected also is important. Soft white lighting may be easy on the eyes, but it isn't the best choice for security. Metal halide lighting often is used in parking areas because it provides bright-white illumination and much truer color.

Proper spacing of light also is important. This will ensure some overlap so that no area within the parking facility is dark. The same strategies hold true for lighting on the facades of parking structures. It is just as important to eliminate shadows on the outsides of garages and the potential hiding places they create.

Landscaping is another consideration in creating safe parking lots and structures. High, dense shrubs can provide hiding places for potential criminals. Campus planners and parking managers should make sure that any vegetation surrounding parking areas is thinned out and kept low.

Another area where attackers can hide is the cut-away areas beneath stairways in stair towers. This threat can be mitigated easily and inexpensively by sealing off all areas behind stairways with concrete or chain-link fencing.

Getting active

Active security measures can enhance safety in parking areas. These measures tend to be more costly than passive measures, but they can be effective.

Many colleges and universities are installing closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems to make it easier to monitor activity within parking areas. These systems can be useful, but it is vital that they be monitored continually. Campuses sometimes install CCTV systems but fail to monitor them, thinking that the mere presence of security cameras will be enough to discourage criminal activity. However, this approach can be more dangerous — it can create a false sense of security. When parkers believe that security personnel are watching them, they often let down their guard and become less vigilant in looking for potential risks. Leaving surveillance cameras unmonitored also can increase a school's legal liability if crimes are committed in front of cameras that are not being monitored.

One way to avoid this risk is through the installation of voice-activated security systems (VASS). With VASS, parking areas are divided into zones. If someone is attacked within a parking area and screams, all CCTV cameras immediately focus on that area, video cameras record any activity, and security personnel are dispatched simultaneously.

Another effective tool is the security “blue phone.” These phones provide parkers with direct access to security personnel just by picking up the handset. A related technology that serves a similar function is the “panic button,” which can be pressed by a student or other parker if he or she is threatened. If a panic button is pressed, an alarm sounds immediately, and security personnel are directed to the spot where the emergency is taking place. Both can be installed in parking facilities.

Adding security patrols in parking structures or lots also can enhance security significantly. A heightened police presence can deter crime in parking areas.

Each of these security measures can play a critical role in a campus parking safety program. In addition, any effective campus parking program needs one vital element: communication. Criminals are much less likely to commit a crime in a parking facility if they know that there are tools and strategies in place to stop them, and that they are likely to get caught if they do commit a crime. At the same time, a student who knows what security tools are in place in a parking facility is more likely to use them properly.

Rich is the director of business development for Rich and Associates, Southfield, Mich. The firm specializes in parking planning and design.


Both passive and active security measures can play a critical role in a campus parking safety program:


  • Closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems.
  • Voice-activated security systems (VASS).
  • Security “blue phone” or “panic button.”
  • Security patrols.


  • Sufficient lighting.
  • Light spacing.
  • Landscaping.
  • Sealing off “cut-away” areas behind stairways.
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