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Austin’s next mobility challenge: downtown parking

Thursday, June 22, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Exactly what role City Council will play in an ambitious new framework conceived to tackle downtown parking problems remains to be worked out.

On Wednesday afternoon, members of the Mobility Committee became the first among their colleagues to be briefed on the Downtown Austin Alliance’s Downtown Austin Parking Strategy, a 79-page document that assesses the city’s shortcomings and recommends a broad set of corrective actions.

Officially released on Wednesday, the document was a yearlong undertaking that the Downtown Austin Alliance embarked upon last May with the help of consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates. Senior associate Phil Olmstead said his firm confronted the problem from both the supply side as well as the demand side.

“We really wanted to be comprehensive in our approach,” Olmstead told the Austin Monitor. “That’s why we have this package of 19 recommendations that really speak to all aspects of the system. So while new supply is part of the solution, there’s recommendations in there about improving mobility choice for employees.”

Olmstead said that 75 percent of downtown’s 86,000 employees enjoy free parking, while only 17 percent receive incentives to try alternatives to driving alone, such as discounted transit passes. According to the study, approximately 68,800 of those workers commute to their jobs in single-occupant vehicles, which, at 80 percent, is a rate that exceeds both the rest of the city and Travis County.

Many of those drivers are competing with downtown’s 12,000 residents as well as the countless tourists, shoppers, restaurant patrons and nightlife seekers for the area’s 71,504 parking spaces.

Since demand peaks and ebbs at different parts of the day and in different sections of downtown, the parking strategy suggests a more dynamic management of the supply, an effort that includes private owners as well as public entities, such as the city, that operate garage facilities.

As for the city’s 6,405 on-street parking spaces, Olmstead said the city is charging “bargain” rates that encourage drivers to circle around blocks hunting for a spot rather than pull into a more expensive garage. Once a driver does find a spot, lax city enforcement allows some to overstay their welcome, thus blocking the turnaround retail businesses thrive on.

Additionally, the parking strategy recommends better wayfinding signage, formal cooperation between the city, state and county, and better management during special events.

Also on the list is a set of suggested revisions to the zoning code to support walkable, mixed-use development. Currently, developers are not required to include parking minimums on any new projects on land zoned Central Business District or Downtown Mixed Use, but many parts of downtown do not fit those categories. The document also suggests expanding the use of parking maximums.

Of the 19 recommendations, the alliance’s study suggests that the city take the lead on nine.

“There’s different parts of it that can move forward without city participation. There’s obviously some pieces that need your buy-in and need that policy direction,” Olmstead told the committee. He indicated a formal timeline for implementation is still in the works.

After the meeting, Council Member Ann Kitchen, the chair of the committee, labeled the alliance’s work “thorough.”

“With that said, there’s a lot more work to be done to figure out which ones of those recommendations are appropriate to bring forward and when. But it looks to me to be a useful study,” Kitchen said.

Asked whether the notion of parking and the massive structures that occupy downtown space will one day be outmoded by the autonomous vehicle future that the city is preparing for, Kitchen said, “What will be interesting is to have a conversation about what we could put in place now in terms of requirements about how you build those. That’s one of the to-do items in an AV plan.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore made available through a Creative Commons license.

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