Tackling fear and loathing in the parking lot

Parking lots fill many people with a visceral dread, and rightly so. There’s a high incidence of crime in these dark, enclosed spaces. “There are a lot of targets – cars and people – in a small area,” says Bill VanRyswyk, president and CEO of Security Through Safe Design Inc. (STSD Inc), an Ottawa-based consultancy.

There’s been a recent shift in the industry to place more emphasis on personal safety in parking lot security, he says. “I think there’s greater recognition of its importance because more crimes are being reported, but the actual incidence has remained constant for the past four years.”

April 9, 2008
By Rosie Lombardi

But people’s perceptions of safety issues are just as important as the
reality, he says. “Even if there haven’t been any crimes in a
particular facility, people’s fears nevertheless have to be addressed.
If they don’t feel safe, they won’t use the parking lot.”

When incidents do occur, many property managers take reactive measures
instead of conducting a thorough analysis of their parking lot security
issues — and they wind up spending big bucks on the wrong security measures,
he says. “Many think if they just throw in a camera, it will stop
robberies.” But surveillance cameras need to be set up to support
comprehensive security goals, he says. “What do you want the camera to
do? Is the goal deterrence, to use it as an investigative tool, or to
stop crime – which it won’t?”

He points out the number of cameras needed to act as deterrents in a
surface lot of say, 500 cars is often unaffordable. “I love CCTV, but
it has to be implemented and used correctly. Many companies come to me
and say. ‘We just spent $50,000 but it hasn’t reduced crime.’”

 A few cameras placed on the side of a building are unlikely to act as
a deterrent, as bad guys know they’re unlikely to be indentified from a
distance, he says.“If you place the cameras at entrances and
stairwells, it can be a deterrent as they know there’s more opportunity
to identify them. It depends on where and how you use cameras, but you
must be careful about the level of importance placed on cameras acting
as deterrents.”

Another common knee-jerk reaction is to hire guards. “I find it a waste
of money sometimes. The security’s gone when the guard goes home. You
could be putting that money into a long-term solution that will work
for many years like access control or lighting.”

The first order of business is establishing the real and perceived
security issues to tackle, be it through a formal security audit or
surveying clients and staff, he says. “What are the issues you’re
trying to address specifically, and more importantly, what are the
issues around you?”  Different neighbourhoods have different
experiences of crime, so property managers need to do some footwork
talking to local police, nearby businesses, and listening to the news.

To illustrate, VanRyswyk relates the case of a parking garage in
Victoria that experienced a surge in incidents. “The city put in a
needle exchange program for addicts nearby, and that completely changed
the criminal issues for the garage overnight. The first thing addicts
do when they have a new needle is head to the nearest stairwell to
shoot up, and it happened to be the one in this garage.”  This is why a
cookie cutter approach to security doesn’t work, he adds. “You could
take that garage to different cities, and depending on where it’s
placed, it will have different issues.”

While expensive technology tools are available to boost security,
VanRyswyk believes many highly effective low-cost measures should be
considered first. Establishing what he calls pride in ownership can go
a long way to creating a safer environment and tackling many of the
psychological issues. “Something any manager can do without a lot of
money is setting up a clean, well-lit facility with good signage.”

Examples abound of such tactics. Lighting is a key example. “Many older
lots were built with a row of strip lights down the aisle where the
cars drive, but this is the wrong place. They need to be over the
parked cars so people can see if someone is crouched in the shadows.” A
related measure is painting walls white to better reflect the lighting,
and cutting holes in walls to improve sight lines.

Signage is frequently overlooked area, not just in helping people find
their way, but in communicating subliminal messages about the parking
lot’s management, he says. “Signs that say access is restricted to
certain hours, for example, show there are rules in place. People often
complain about skateboarders, but if you don’t have signs in place
saying it’s prohibited, then the police have no power to act.”

Some simple but inventive solutions have solved many of his clients’
problems. In one instance, an underground parking garage had issues
with crime in its lower levels. “We worked with the organization to
move the maintenance staff office down, and this changed the
environment dramatically. Suddenly, it went from a deserted lot to
staff coming and going on a regular basis to an office with windows.”

There are many such low-tech measures that should be implemented first
before considering heavier artillery, he says. And it’s difficult to
retrace steps once investments are made in the wrong direction, he
adds. “If organizations throw money at a problem and it doesn’t work,
they’re hesitant to do it again.”

Winnipeg Parking Authority doubles its revenue

The Winnipeg Parking Authority (WPA) inherited many poorly-maintained
parking lots when the city amalgamated them under one organization in
2003, says COO Dave Hill. “We worked with STSD to address the issues in
a way that was invisible to customers to reduce inconvenience,” he

Many of the primordial fears people have in parking lots are the result
of misguided architectural designs in the sixties and seventies that
created dark, enclosed spaces, he says. “Surface lots were built with
hedges, trees and other features to obscure them as they were
considered blights on the landscape. The net result is that people are
afraid to park in them – but they don’t say that, they just don’t park

To forestall further loss of revenue, the WPA conducted some focus
groups to suss out what bothered people about the city’s parking lots.
Hill notes that Winnipeggers are a tough crowd to reassure, as there
were cultural issues to tackle too. “Although crime is no worse than
other cities, it’s something of a local passion to dwell on it. There
have actually been no reports of cars stolen from a city parking
facility since 2003.”

Considerable thought went into revamping the lots to transform them
into places people would want to use. “To reduce that creepy feeling,
we addressed those elements through environmental and functional
redesign: painting walls white, putting effective way finding signs,
and other measures that give the perception of organization and

These environmental improvements were implemented at a major
underground parking lot in a downtown tower, plus patrols by guards and
some customer service offerings such as car washes were added, he says.
“We doubled our profit at that location. It used to be a deep dark hole
in the ground in 2004, but it now makes about $1.5 million profit
annually, and it’s full from September to May. We created that
utilization primarily by addressing background perceptions.”

Hill is now eyeing IP surveillance video cameras for the city’s parking
lots to act as deterrents. “Break-ins still occur, and we want to
continue to address the perception issues. Plus we want to raise the
prices as the space is now more valuable.” As in many municipalities,
there’s a movement afoot to implement street cameras in Winnipeg, he
adds. “Our idea is to set up our cameras so they can be monitored
anywhere, including police dispatch, and make them part of the global