One Woman's Quest to Design Parking Lots People Don't Hate

Rachel Yoka believes parking can be more than what some might call a necessary evil.

Image
By parking cars automatically, The Lift in Philadelphia can have twice as many stalls (220 on 8 floors) as a conventional parking structure. (The Lift)

PHILADELPHIA—Rachel Yoka pilots her Nissan Rogue through five lanes of honking cars and trucks, then down a narrow alley near City Hall. It's a densely built neighborhood, laid out in the 17th century for pedestrians and the occasional horse and buggy, not the automobile traffic that chokes the grid at lunchtime. Of course, parking in Center City is always a challenge, but that's actually why we're here.

"I love this place!" says Yoka, pulling the car into a bay at the base of an unassuming nine-story building, designated by a discrete sans-serif sign as "The Lift at Juniper Street." We climb out, Yoka swipes a credit card at a touch-screen kiosk, and in a few seconds we hear the whir of machinery as a set of doors open at the rear of the bay and the car slides through. When we race around the corner to peer through a wall of tall windows, we see the vehicle rising on a robotic dolly, a sort of elevator for cars which slips it smoothly into a narrow slot several stories up.

This automated garage is ideal for dense urban areas, says Yoka, vice president of program development at the International Parking Institute, based in Alexandria, Virginia. A Philadelphia-area native and self-described "super parking nerd," her niche is sustainable parking, something that many people, upon first hearing the phrase, assume is a contradiction. But for a building designed to house cars, says Yoka, The Lift at Juniper Street is surprisingly green.

"You don't need ventilation, you don't need lighting," she says. "You have space savings in terms of floor-to-floor ratio." Because there's no need for ramps or aisles, The Lift can accommodate twice as many cars as a traditional garage of the same size, and the cars are lifted into position with their engines off, cutting down on emissions. The idea has already caught on in Europe, and Yoka calls it "up and coming" in the United States.

"From a sustainability perspective, we realize that parking is part of the problem," Yoka says. "But eliminating parking just isn't feasible. So we want to reduce the number of parking spaces that need to be constructed, and we want the ones that are constructed to be as green as possible."

Anyone who has driven in a city has experienced the frustrations of parking: the hunt for a spot, the wait to enter or exit a garage, the need to hoard quarters and dash out of a meeting to plug a meter. But parking doesn't just affect drivers. Massive garages with blank, unfriendly facades can drain the life out of a city block. Surface lots create barren craters in city centers. The wrong amount of parking can mean more emissions: too much encourages unnecessary driving, too little increases congestion as drivers waiting for a spot circle and idle. But while ardent urbanists might dream of a future when cars are kept out of cities altogether, that's unlikely to happen any time soon.

"The initial response is, 'Green parking—isn't that an oxymoron?' " says Paul Wessel, executive director of the New Haven-based Green Parking Council, which in June released its Green Garage Certification Standard, modeled on the LEED program for green buildings. But once we admit that parking isn't going away, he says, we might as well figure out how to make it more efficient and less harmful.

"It's about helping parking become part of the solution," he says, "rather than poster child for the problem."

•       •       •       •       •

"My friends don't like to go through parking garages with me—they're like, 'Just shut up!' " says Yoka with a laugh. We've picked up her car at The Lift, and we're heading to North Philly to visit a new garage on the campus of Temple University.

Touring parking facilities was not always Yoka's idea of a fun afternoon. Her entrée into the professional parking world came in 2003, when she interviewed for a job in marketing with the Philadelphia architectural firm Timothy Haahs & Associates, which specializes in designing parking structures.

"I'd never really considered it," she says. "But everybody needs it, across this wide range of industries. There's the private side, the public side. Parking for healthcare is different than, say, paid parking on the street."

Within a few years of taking the job, Yoka moved from marketing to research, conducting studies that looked at how the firm's facilities could be greener. She earned a LEED credential and accreditation from the Congress for the New Urbanism, and she became an evangelist for sustainable parking, leading development of the new Green Garage Certification Standard. She also edited Sustainable Parking Design and Management: A Practitioner's Handbook, which  the International Parking Institute, the industry's largest trade group, published in June, just as Yoka was moving to her current job there. She believes parking can be more than what some might call a necessary evil.

More urban garages are incorporating ground-floor retail and architectural flourishes to make parking blend into walkable environments (above, Rachel Yoka outside Hamilton Square in Philadelphia, designed by Timothy Haahs & Associates). (Courtesy Rachel Yoka) 

Yoka takes a ticket and pulls into the new Temple garage, a project she worked on while at Haahs. Nearly a third of  Temple’s students, faculty, and staff commute by car (as drivers and passengers), so there's a desperate need for parking on campus, she says. The four-story structure is a definite improvement over the surface lot that was here before. It packs more cars into a smaller area, but it also boasts high-efficiency lighting programmed to go off when daylight alone is sufficient, landscaping that conserves water, and preferred parking for electric vehicles. It was designed to LEED standards, says Yoka, although at present LEED does not recognize parking.

"They're not encouraging it," she says, "and I understand why. They want to promote alternative modes of transportation. Which was part of why the Green Parking Council developed the new rating system just for parking garages. It's pretty exciting stuff!"

The Green Garage Standard, laid out in a 195-page manual, includes points for everything from efficient lighting and renewable energy integration to bicycle parking and connections to mass transit. It also describes pricing, which when set properly, the group says, can reduce automobile commuting by up to 30 percent compared with free parking.

The industry is already embracing these standards, says Casey Jones, a former chair of the International Parking Institute and current vice president at Standard Parking, which manages more than 4,000 facilities nationwide. Sustainability is good for business, he says, especially as customers begin to realize that parking can be greener.

"The pressure is good for us—we have to deliver," he says. "We've gone a long while not being a contributor to the environment or the community, building poorly-designed garages that are seen as eyesores, that don't contribute to sustainability. We've got to correct those mistakes, and we're doing it every day."

•       •       •       •       •

Despite efforts to be greener, the parking industry may always face skepticism—not only because of its history, but because of its purpose. In Chicago, for example, the Standard Parking-managed Greenway Self Park garage, with its wind turbines and electric car charging stations, was roundly mocked by bloggers and even the Chicago Tribune after it opened to great fanfare in 2010.

Mocked as "greenwashing" after it opened in 2010, Greenway Self-Park in Chicago has wind turbines, electric car charging stations, energy-efficient lighting—and a controversial logo that shows a car emitting leaves from its tailpipe. (HOK Network / Flickr)

"It's a classic case of 'greenwashing,' tacking a few energy-saving features onto a building whose function is inherently unsustainable," wrote the Tribune's Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, Blair Kamin. Pointing to the garage's logo, in which green leaves come out of a car's exhaust pipe, he noted, "the decoration seems designed to remove guilt from the act of driving. 'At least I'm parking my energy-sucking SUV in a building that's saving Mother Earth,' customers can assure themselves."

Green roofs and wind turbines might attract attention, but they're just a distraction if sustainable parking advocates aren't truly trying to reduce demand, says Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago-based non-profit that advocates for sustainable development. "If you're going to put in parking, there's a lot of things you can do that will be greener. But why do we need as much parking as we have? First, make a decision to do with less of it. Then, make it as green as possible."

Yoka agrees that we need fewer, smaller garages. "Honestly, an overbuild of parking is absolutely the worse investment," she says, "both from a sustainability standpoint and a profit standpoint."

One solution is parking maximums. Most cities still have parking minimums for new development, but in an effort to increase density and transit use, some, including Portland and Seattle, have set limits on how much new parking can be built. That's a constraint that the parking industry is happy to take on, Yoka says. "The greenest parking space is the one that's never built."

Parking can be reduced through shared-use agreements, with office workers parking in a garage during the day and apartment-dwellers using the spots at night, for example. Well-managed garages can also discourage excessive driving by providing price incentives for high-occupancy vehicles, or by facilitating multimodal commutes with convenient links to transit. Demand-responsive pricing—like San Francisco's SFpark program—can be used to discourage people from using their cars at the busiest times of day.

"These are not the shiny, sexy elements of sustainability," says Josh Kavanagh, president of the Association for Commuter Transportation, who has led workshops in transportation-demand management for the parking industry. "But parking management policies can encourage comparatively green commuter behaviors. By meeting people where they are and encouraging them to stretch just a little, we can get them to move toward more sustainable behavior."  

•       •       •       •       •

"Once you start to look for parking facilities, they're everywhere," says Yoka, as we cross the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia's famous 30th Street Station, on the last leg of our parking tour. "Some are good, some are bad, but you just can't get away from them."

Near the train tracks, we pass a series of crowded surface lots surrounded by chain-link fences—land that, one hopes, is waiting to be developed into something better. We pass traditional garages with boxy tiers of bare concrete, the kind that present an unwelcoming façade to drivers and pedestrians alike. That's something developers are moving away from, says Yoka. In fact, urban garages are increasingly likely to include ground floor retail and attractive architectural flourishes. We stop at one with a fancy metal skin wrapped around the upper levels and full-size Fresh Grocer on the ground floor, complete with a sidewalk café where a few people sit drinking coffee. The market, says Yoka, was sorely needed when the garage went up in 2000. "It literally changed the character of the neighborhood."

The Green Parking Council looked to the solar-powered garage at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado when developing its Green Garage Standard. More than 200 spots are reserved for electric and fuel-efficient cars, as well as carpools. (National Renewable Energy Lab)

The store and the garage above it are busy, with shoppers pushing carts full of reusable grocery bags to their cars. How many of them might have taken the bus or walked if not for the convenience of a parking garage is difficult to say. But it's clear, in this urban neighborhood and across the country, that Americans love their cars.

That's something that advocates for sustainability will have to come to terms with, says Paul Wessel, with the Green Parking Council. "If you think taking guns away from us is hard, imagine taking our cars away!" he says. "In America, we think that we should be able to drive as fast as we want and park out front. It's almost a birthright."

We might be moving away from that sensibility, says Yoka, arguing that city drivers, when nudged in the right direction, are coming to accept that they might need to walk at least those last few blocks. Still, she admits, even someone as conscious of parking and its issues as she is will circle past her destination once or twice, just to check for that perfect parking spot.

"It's always nice when you get that rock star space!" she says with a guilty laugh.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Author

  • Amy Crawford has written for Boston magazine, the Boston Globe, Slate, and Smithsonian. She lives outside Boston.