Downtown Austin parking problems may be in the eye of the beholder, especially depending on where that beholder parks.
The vast majority—about 85 percent—of downtown’s nearly 20,000 parking spaces are located in garages and surface lots, according to statistics from Austin Parking Division Manager Steve Grassfield. By comparison there are 2,952 metered downtown street parking spaces, he said, 140 less spaces compared with December 2012. The 4.5 percent decrease in street parking mostly results from ongoing construction, an increase in valet spaces and MetroRapid lane closures, he said.
Metered parking, which costs $1 per hour, is typically at or above capacity, Grassfield said, but parking garages, which range from $5 to $25 per use, are almost half-empty at night.
“For now garages aren’t anywhere near full,” he said. “Most people coming downtown don’t really know where the parking garages are.”
The city will use $3.5 million in street meter revenue to help fund kiosks that direct downtown-goers to public parking garages, Grassfield said. The kiosk signs will tell how many spaces are available in the Austin City Hall, Austin Convention Center and, eventually, the Seaholm District parking garages, he said, and in which direction they are located. Kiosks will first be installed in late 2015 at those parking garages and along downtown Cesar Chavez Street as part of a partnership with Downtown Austin Alliance.
DAA Transportation Director Thomas Butler said the city has found other creative solutions to increase parking capacity, such as converting parallel spaces to angle parking, thus doubling capacity along certain streets. The city also reduced regulations to enable more valet parking, creating more capacity in the process, he said.
“Valet [parking] a lot of times gets blamed for taking up parking spaces, but a valet service taking up three parking spaces is going to park 50 to 60 cars [per night] out of those three spots,” Butler said. “That’s way more than what would be able to park there.”
Metered parking spaces turn over three times during Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, according to city data, meaning three spots would have roughly nine occupants per night. Street spaces were on average unlikely to become vacant more than once per night before the city instituted evening metered parking four years ago during those three days, Grassfield said. The change proved beneficial for businesses, he said, with sales taxes up 10 percent and liquor sales rising 16 percent six months after the change.
Some parking advocates are calling for increasing the cost of street parking. Chicago, for example, charges $6.50 per hour.
“The way I see it these days, downtown is a golden goose for the region,” said Glenn Gadbois, executive director of transportation advocacy group Movability Austin. “Our transportation and parking problems are strangling that golden goose.”
Garage and surface parking is already getting more expensive for downtown commuters, Gadbois said, increasing from $100–$140 per month last year to upwards of $180 per month in 2015 in some cases. And as more companies expand downtown, daytime demand increases, he said.
“Anybody that doesn’t have long-term fixed contracts on parking is going to start being subjected to more and more rapid increases in parking costs,” Gadbois said.
Street parking accessibly does not single-handedly make or break a downtown business, said Fred Schmidt, owner of Toy Joy and Austin Rocks on Second Street as well as Wild About Music, which relocates in June to Congress Avenue.
“I frankly find a lot of the complaining about parking to be unfounded,” Schmidt said. “My businesses are thriving, and our customers find us just fine. They have found some other solution for parking downtown that it just isn’t an issue [for us].”
Some companies have created their own solutions, such as shuttles to and from MetroRail and MetroRapid stops, according to Joseph Kopser, CEO of RideScout, a transportation smartphone application. He is partnering with public and private city stakeholders to start the Mobility ATX initiative, which has proposed, among other solutions, bringing back some form of The ‘Dillo, a free downtown streetcar that Capital Metro discontinued in late 2009.
“We want to have an open and transparent conversation about what people want to see and experiment with,” Kopser said. “Let’s not limit ourselves to a downtown circulator. Electric cabs have been operating in this city for several years now.”
Kopser said he also supports increasing the cost of downtown Austin metered parking to help the city gain more revenue to do projects such as the parking garage kiosks. However, meter fare increases are not immediately likely, Grassfield said, although he does not rule out such an increase.
“People want to come downtown, and we want people to come downtown,” Grassfield said. “That’s why we’re doing all these things and try to stay ahead of any parking problems.”