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September 1956: Car park innovations

Parking has been an issue since the dawn of the car. In 1956 The Engineer looked at innovative solutions to this perennial problem

car park
Off-street parking with hydraulic hoists in Washington DC

In the days before Covid it was estimated that at any one time 30 per cent of UK drivers could be found in city centres searching for a parking space.

Furthermore, according to the British Parking Association, it took those drivers an average of 10-15 minutes to find somewhere to park.

During 2018-19 in England alone, local authorities reaped the financial benefits of these quests for a space by making a combined profit of £930m from their parking activities. According to the RAC Foundation, the 353 local authorities in England received total income of £1.75bn from their on-and off-street parking operations in 2018-19, including £454m from penalties.


The RAC Foundation notes that at the end of March, 2020 there were 38.3 million licensed vehicles in the UK but in the US in 1956 this figure stood at 55,000,000 and the lack of parking provision was important enough for H.J.H Starks to pen an article for The Engineer addressing the problem and discussing the relatively low-tech but no less important engineering solutions to them.


These included the use of parking meters for street parking, off-street parking sites, multi-storey open-deck garages with ramps or hoists for inter-floor movement, large underground car parks, mechanical parking of cars, car storage on the roof or upper floors or in the interior of buildings, and so-called fringe parking.

Starks noted that the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944 did a lot to encourage the flow of traffic through cities and funding was made available for this purpose, but not for where drivers could park.

This was a major flaw because a lack of car parking spaces in the central areas of cities was a factor encouraging the growth of suburban shopping centres with ample – often free - parking (a phenomena that brought about its own uniquely American challenge, but more on that later).

“The financial repercussions on the shops and stores in the central areas have, in some cases, compelled large stores to close or to move to one or more suburban sites; property values in the central area have in consequence declined appreciably,” Starks said.

City centres weren’t entirely dead and adequate parking was seen as a way of reviving these hubs of commercial activity. But what to do? As Starks noted, ‘the conflicting requirements of shoppers who wish to park for short periods, of business people who wish to park all day and the demands of moving traffic make the parking problem one of great complexity.’ He noted also that the demand for parking spaces was so acute that offences for street parking exceeded all other traffic offences.

As in the UK, parking became a source of revenue with over one million parking meters in use across the US charging between $0.05 and $0.40 an hour.

“If parking meters are to serve their proper purpose, it is essential that there shall be a proper system of enforcement,” said Starks. “This sometimes presents a difficult problem in cities where there are several thousand meters. In Washington, police patrols mounted on motor-cycle combinations periodically inspect the parking meters.”

With an engineer’s instinct for efficiency, Starks noted that the arrangement of meters and parking positions could have a profound effect on the time it took enter and leave a space.

“A study made in Washington by the American Automobile Association showed that the average time taken to park at the kerb with no stall markings was about thirty-eight seconds, but to park in marked stalls, the average time was about twenty-two seconds. The time taken to unpark from marked stalls was also shorter,” he said.

Off-street parking provisions could be made by new buildings. A theatre, for example, would provide a space for every seven seats and a hotel could provide a space for every four guest rooms. Office buildings would provide a space per 450 square feet, and retail businesses would provide a space for every 400 square feet.

The situation was less acute in the suburbs, but the designers of shopping centres had to be mindful that ‘except on rare occasions, it

has been found that the average American shopper will not walk more than about 400ft from the car to the shopping centre.’

This, said Starks, had an important bearing on the design of suburban parking lots, ‘and if the required parking space cannot be provided within a range of about 400ft it is usual to provide multi-storey parking in a building near the shopping centre.’