There was once a time when a parking lot was simply a paved surface with a few lines to indicate where you could put a car.
In the 21st century, however, parking has become a high-tech experience with security overtones. This is especially the case in the Greater Toronto Area, Canada's most densely populated region, where urban core parking spaces are in great demand and municipal authorities are banding together to entice commuters to take public transit instead of their cars.
GO Transit is in the process of erecting four massive parking structures in the GTA – in addition to six that are already in use at Oakville, Aldershot, Burlington, Whitby, Centennial and Aurora rail stations – to add more than 6,100 spaces. These public infrastructure projects will bring the number of parking spaces at GTA GO Stations to more than 61,000.
"Since 2003, we've added more than 20,000 parking spaces [covered and open air] across the system, mainly because ridership growth is very strong. It's increased over the past year, from 57 million customers in 2009-10 to 62 million riders," said GO spokesman Malon Edwards, media relations and issues specialist with Metrolinx, Ontario's regional transit agency.
"We're now encouraging people to take more transit for the longer regional trips. It does mean fewer cars on the road, which helps us to reduce congestion – and impacts climate change."
From a single GO Train line along Lake Ontario's shoreline in 1967, GO Transit has morphed into a network of train lines and bus routes. The Ontario and federal governments are jointly investing hundreds of millions to revitalize GO Transit. To keep Southern Ontario moving rather than choking in traffic, Metrolinx has identified 51 mobility hubs in its broad transit plan.
"A mobility hub is a place of connectivity, where different modes of transportation flow together seamlessly," Mr. Edwards said. "There's more than a transit station and parking structure involved. Mobility hubs are areas deemed to have high development potential, with intense concentrations of employment, shopping and recreation."
Suburban commuters in Oakville were among the first to take advantage of the new mobility hub vision as its new $41.1-million six-storey parking garage opened on Oct. 19, adding 1,200 parking spots.
The garage is high tech, environmentally friendly, and if you feel you're being watched by Big Brother as you take one of the as yet free-of-charge spots, you probably are. Security is a major component of every GO building, said Scott Hunter, project manager for EllisDon Corp. on the Oakville project.
"Oakville has 66 cameras plus an LED lighting system," Mr. Hunter said. "Of the cameras, half of them tilt and zoom, so you can see everything, everywhere. The cameras are cabled back to an operations centre."
The lights are kept on for passenger security until after the last train has left, then they are dimmed to about 50-per-cent power. The point is to make sure the 175,000 daily train riders feel safe, Mr. Edwards said. "Safety is always foremost."
"There are passive security features as well," Mr. Hunter added. "GO paid for glass-enclosed stairwells, so the occupant or stair user can be seen from the street if they're attacked and the attacker can be identified. There's also glazing [front and rear glass] in elevators and glazing in lobbies and call buttons in the elevator which communicate with the operations centre."
High tech doesn't stop at security, Mr. Hunter said. Because they are open-air structures, the garages could not formally be certified as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings.
"But we still wanted to go for a mock LEED rating and call it sustainable. So we used all the sustainable initiatives that we would need if the building could be certified," Mr. Hunter said. A car-counting system tells incoming drivers how many spaces are available on each floor, so they don't waste time going in circles, burning gas and polluting the air. On the roof, a 300-kilowatt photovoltaic array has been installed and a white surface reflects the sun's rays instead of absorbing the heat.
"Eco-friendly measures are being used at Pickering, too," said Leo Albuquerque, Bondfield Construction's project manager at that GO station parking structure which is still under construction. "We're trying to implement solar panels on the roof. It depends on the capacity of the grid. …We're in the process of applying for that from the government."
The Pickering GO Station provided a unique set of challenges. The aim was to link the train station, located alongside Canada's busiest highway, to Pickering's commercial core. The result is a fully enclosed 250-metre pedestrian bridge that crosses 14 lanes of Highway 401.
"We have access to a whole new set of travellers," Mr. Edwards said. "Walkers and cyclists can cross 401 in ease and comfort, especially in adverse weather conditions. The bridge makes the amenities in the area more accessible, which also allows for more density in and around the station." Built by Pickering-based A-Plus General Contractors and opened in January, the $22.5-million bridge was constructed mainly at night when closure of the 401 caused less traffic disruption. It opened last January.
"It's a safe, convenient way to get over 14 lanes of traffic and it's taken some congestion away from the area. It's become very popular for skateboarders, cyclists and people who park north of the highway. It's helped build the city," said Martin Doran, construction manager of bridge designer AECOM.
GO Transit's Mr. Edwards concluded, "It's more than just about our parking structures. Ultimately, what it comes down to is we understand transit is a clean, sustainable transportation option. It should be the key consideration for future growth strategies and development."
Four more on the GO
Infrastructure in the works at Toronto-area train stations:
Erindale: Kenaidan Contracting Ltd.; $74.6-million; six-level formed concrete structure; 1,740 parking spaces; stair tower and enclosed pedestrian bridge to platforms; new bus loop and access for Mississauga Transit buses; to be completed in summer of 2013.
Ajax: Kenaidan; $54-million; six-level precast concrete structure; 1,300 parking spaces; elevator, stairwell and connection to a pedestrian tunnel; to be completed early 2013.
Clarkson: Bondfield Construction; $45.4-million; five-level precast concrete structure; 1,597 parking spaces; to be completed September, 2013.
Pickering: Bondfield; $50.2-million; multilevel; 1,500 parking spaces; access to pedestrian bridge over Highway 401, connecting to Pickering Town Centre lot where there are 550 temporary spaces; to be completed late 2013.