In most countries where cars are the dominant mode of transportation, parking lots are a feature of every city and suburban area. Shopping malls, sports stadiums, megachurches and similar venues often feature lots of immense area.
Parking lots have their own special type of engineering. While parking lots have traditionally been an overlooked element of development projects by governmental oversight, the recent trend has been to provide regulations for the configuration and spacing of parking lots, their landscaping, and drainage and pollution abatement issues.
Parking lots can be small, with just parking spaces for a few vehicles, very large with spaces for thousands of vehicles, or any size in between. Small parking lots are usually near buildings for small businesses or a few apartments, although many other locations are possible. Larger parking lots can be for larger businesses or those with many customers, institutions such as schools, churches, offices, or hospitals, museums or other tourist attractions, rest areas, strip malls, or larger apartment buildings.
Some such businesses, institutions, or other buildings may have several parking lots if a single large lot cannot accommodate their parking needs. Large and very large parking fields can be for stadiums, airports, malls or shopping centers with multiple businesses, large schools or universities, convention centers or fair grounds, theaters, workplaces with many employees such as factories, plants, etc., or other large institutions. Often several businesses, offices, apartment buildings, or other institutions may use one or more parking lots in common for their convenience.
At places where most visitors and employees use their car to access place, the parking lot usually takes up more land area than the buildings. This is at least true for shopping centres and office buildings, unless a multi-storey park is used.
Parking lots near businesses, buildings, or institutions are often implicitly understood or explicitly labelled to be for the use of their respective customers or visitors, often with special vehicle spaces for the owners and employees. Parking lots around apartment buildings are often exclusively intended for parking use of their residents, although sometimes separate spaces may be provided for visitors. Such parking for businesses, offices, and residences is often free to the customers, patrons, or residents.
In most cases, especially in areas where parking is scarce, one must pay to park in a parking lot. Entry and exit access is often controlled at these type of lots to ensure those parking pay the required fee.
In many congested areas where some businesses lack their own parking areas, there are parking lots where practically any driver can pay a fee to park. These types of parking lots are often effectively businesses in themselves. Some parking lots have parking meters into which coins must be paid to park in the adjacent space.
Some spaces in a parking lot may be marked as "reserved" for certain people, including those who are handicapped. There are often one or more parking spaces for handicapped people, which may be slightly wider, close to the point of entry for the corresponding store or building. Vehicles with handicapped tags may park there, but the non-handicapped are not allowed to.
Although many parking lots are rectangularly-shaped, there are parking lots of all sorts of shapes. A parking lot can be in front or back, on the side of the building it services, or any combination of these, including all around the building, often depending on local building codes. In a very large parking field, it is easy to get lost or have trouble finding one's vehicle. Such large parking lots often have various sections marked, for example by numbers or letters, to help identify the location.
The area in parking lots is organized into parking spaces, which are generally marked with paint lines for each vehicle and often contain a turtarrier, and driving lanes in between so that vehicles can drive into and out of the spaces. The arrangement of the parking spaces relative to the driving lanes can feature perpendicular parking spaces, angle parking (most common in North America, especially in large lots), or parallel parking (least common in parking lots, and usually only for a few spaces), or possibly some combination of these.
Large parking lots have multiple lanes with rows of parking spaces between each one. Except for rather small lots, the location of the parking spaces for each vehicle are usually indicated with pavement markings or lines, similar to center lines on streets. A very common arrangement in large parking lots is angle parking for two rows of vehicles between driving lanes, with the parked vehicles facing front to front between the two rows. At the sides of the parking lot, other driving lanes connect these lanes perpendicularly so that a vehicle can drive into and out of the parking lot at designated locations.
Most spaces in normal parking lots available to the public are sized for vehicles about the size of a car. The spaces are usually arranged assuming the vehicle can back out of the parking space. In many rest areas on highways, long parking spaces are also available for trucks or other vehicles with trailers, into which they can enter at one end and leave at the opposite end to avoid potentially cumbersome reverse driving.
A common arrangement in paid parking lots is to have a vehicle entry point with a cross gate where an entering driver presses a button to take a stub with the entry time and to open the cross gate for access to the lot. When leaving, the driver would pay at an exit point according to how much time was spent in the lot as determined from the stub.
In order to keep unauthorized people from parking in lots, towing crews sometimes patrol parking lots after business closing hours, especially at night, to tow away vehicles which should not be parked there. After snowfalls in winter, vehicles with snow plows often clear snow from parking lots, usually after business closing hours and often during the night.
In response the worldwide intelligent transport system initiative, Parking Guidance and Information systems have been developed for use in urban areas. These systems use variable-message signs to direct drivers to car parks with available spaces.
Much of the above discussion also applies to large parking garages and multi-level parking areas.
Parking lots also tend to be subject to contamination with concentrated spots of pollutants such as motor oil. While motor vehicles on roadways may drip oil, they do so over a large area. Oil drips on parking lots are concentrated enough that they can have a deleterious effect on the water quality of the runoff. Other pollutants, even brake-lining dust, rust particles, and other particulate materials that settle on the parking lot surface, can be a similar problem. Therefore, an important second function of the retention basin for parking lots is to act as a temporary storage impoundment to allow particulate materials to settle out and to slow or even prevent the release of other pollutants into waterways.
In some places, the water is not channeled into retention basins, but into dry wells.
An alternative solution today is to use permeable paving surfaces, such as brick, stone, special paving blocks, or tire-tread woven mats. The intent of these is to allow rain to soak into the ground through the spaces inherent in the parking lot surface. The ground then may become contaminated in the surface of the parking lot, but this tends to stay in a small area of ground, which effectively filters water before it seeps away. This can however create problems if contaminants seep into groundwater, especially where there is groundwater abstraction 'downstream' for potable water supply.
Many areas today also require minimum landscaping in parking lots. This usually principally means the planting of trees to provide shade. Customers have long preferred shaded parking spaces in the summer, but parking lot providers have long been antagonistic to planting trees because of the extra cost of cleaning the parking lot.
However, parking lots represent significant heat islands and, indeed, heat sinks in urban areas. The heat from paved areas in urban zones has been shown to even have the power to change the weather locally. By providing trees or other means of shading parking lots, the heat and glare resulting from them can be significantly reduced.
Many municipalities have established minimum numbers of parking spaces as part of zoning, depending on the floor area in a store, or the number of bedrooms in an apartment complex. Minimum spacing standards are also set for parallel, pull-in, or diagonal parking, depending on what types of vehicles are allowed to park in the lot or a particular section of it. At least one entity prohibits backing in to certain spaces. More recently with the drive to sustainable communities, authorities in the UK have moved to maximum standards to discourage car use and other negative environmental consequences associated with parking lots.
In the United States, each state's Department of Transportation sets the proper ratio for handicapped spaces, while certain circumstances may demand more. Those in possession of the proper ID tags or license plates are also free from parking violation tickets for running over their metered time or parking in an inappropriate place, as some disabilities may prohibit the use of regular spaces.
In Sweden, there are legally two types of car parking, either on streets and roads, or on private land. A parking violation on streets is a traffic crime, giving fines. A parking violation on private land (also if owned by the city) is a contract violation and gives additional parking fee (Swedish:kontrollavgift=check fee). The practical difference is small in reality for the car owner. The car owner is always responsible.
Boom gates are used in many parking lots. A customer arrives to the entry ticket machine by vehicle, presses the ticket request push button, takes a ticket and enters the car park via the now raised barrier. To exit the parking lot, the customer presents the ticket to a cashier in a booth at the exit and tenders payment, after which the cashier opens the boom gate. A more modern system users automatic pay stations, where the driver presents the ticket and pays the fee required before returning to their car, then drives to the exit terminal and presents the ticket. If the ticket has not been paid for, the boom barrier will not raise and will force the customer to either press the intercom and speak to a staff member, or reverse out to pay at the pay station or cashier booth.
Another variant of payment has motorists paying an attendant on entry to the lot, with the way out guarded by a one-way spike strip that will only allow cars to exit.
Parking meters can also be used, with motorists paying for the time required for the bay they are parked in.
Other parking lots operate on a pay and display system, where a ticket is purchased from a ticket machine, and then placed on the dashboard of the car. Parking enforcement officers patrol the parking lot to ensure compliance with the requirement.
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