Charting the Best Course for Parking

The buses need to get in and out of the parking lot, students and vehicles need to be safely separated, and faculty and staff desire parking that’s safe and close. Parking at K-12 facilities is just as critical as parking on a college or university campus. The key is to plan for all potential users and uses, including use during non-school events.

Developing the Plan

Jim Morgan, vice president with Walker Parking Consultants, has developed parking solutions for numerous education clients.“There’s an old saying about parking,” he says.“When asked, ‘do you have enough spaces?’ the answer is ‘you can never have enough.’”

Many high school students today drive, which presents parking challenges especially where older facilities and their accompanying parking lots are concerned. Constructing a new building, which sometimes occurs on the site of a surface parking lot, decreases the inventory of available spaces.

“School administrators and their design teams must consider all possible uses, including community and sporting events,” says Moran. “The number of spaces may be adequate, but they not be conveniently located, which can change even more depending on campus construction. Individuals responsible for parking must be involved in all master planning efforts and must continually update the parking inventory in light of current and future changes to the campus. This is especially true with high school campuses or campuses that contain both an elementary and middle school.”

Moran says that there are two different planning modes for K-12 parking. High school lots must be planned differently than elementary or middle school lots because students who drive are part of the equation. “Many students are good drivers, but you must take into account those students who like to drive faster than necessary or who don’t focus on what is going on around them.”

Building in traffic-calming features such as speed humps or bump-outs — a section that flows out from a sidewalk — are two options to consider. These design measures help to maximize both vehicular and pedestrian safety, which is critical in any parking project.

Walking Parking Consultants tracks vehicle sales annually. This enables the company to project the type of vehicles that will likely be most prevalent in given situations, including K-12 campuses. “Restriping existing lots is a good place to start when the parking inventory starts to become low,” Moran says. “Older parking lots can be restriped to accommodate current users. We recently analyzed all parking for an entire school system. We were able to increase their capacity by 15 percent by recommending that they restripe their lots to meet current vehicle size standards.”

Design Issues

Building a new parking lot necessitates evaluating a myriad of issues, including access and egress, safety, and sustainability. Rick Strawn, design principal and associate vice president for HNTB Corporation, says that integrating a new lot within an existing footprint or constructing a lot as part of a new school must be integrated with the campus master plan.

“Parking lots are designed to last a long time,” Strawn says. “The ease in getting out of a lot, how safe it feels and its proximity to the school building must all be carefully designed so that expensive changes, if possible, aren’t required in the future.”

Strawn says that vehicular and pedestrian access and egress are very important. The efficient flow in and out of a parking lot is vital, particularly if a large number of vehicles will be exiting the facility at roughly the same time, such as after a sporting event.

Building a new school and its associated parking can significantly impact surrounding streets, especially given the size of some high school campuses today. Strawn says that a project’s impact on local streets and intersections must be evaluated and improved based on the effect the new parking may have on their capacity and operation. Designers and school officials must determine up front where buses will load and unload students, and how buses will intersect, if at all, with parents picking up students or students drivers exiting a campus.

Students in many school districts go to school year-around, and schools are increasingly used by community groups or for college or university classes at night in an effort to maximize a community’s investment in the facility, while potentially also generating income for the school. Designers must fully understand all uses so that design requirements are fulfilled.

“Constructing a school with a theater that will be used extensively by the community at night or on the weekends may cause a designer to look at parking in a different way,” Strawn says. “For example, if the theater is located on one side of the school, you would want adequate parking available on the same side so that visitors do not have access to the entire school when attending an event. This helps provide parking in close proximity to the building, which has safety implications.”

Pedestrian accommodations are important, and the potential interface between vehicles and pedestrians must be minimized to the greatest extent possible. Individuals should walk behind rather than between cars. Pedestrian walkways or crosswalks and sidewalks must be carefully planned for and provided.

Pedestrian and vehicular needs also include wayfinding. Both signage and lot markings such as striping, crosswalks, and directions painted on the lot surface must be distinct and clear and should be part of a wayfinding plan. Signage that becomes damaged or lot markings that fade should be replaced immediately.

Lighting is also important, and levels should be adequate and maintained at the level that is provided when new bulbs are installed. Regular monitoring of all light fixtures is necessary so that bulbs are replaced immediately when they cease to work or when light levels become low.

An increasing number of school districts are making a commitment to sustainability, and parking lots are “heat islands” that are not environmentally friendly. Fortunately, design measures can mitigate the heat that is generated while also making the lot more aesthetically pleasing. Strawn advocates using shade trees in planter islands and light-colored pavement as two options to address environmental concerns. The use of an open-grid pavement system where the paved surface is at least 50 percent impervious should also be considered.