Parking downtown in any metropolitan city could be a bit of a headache. Now imagine the city’s population starting to outgrow its infrastructure. It’s what seems to be happening in Austin, Texas. In April, Bloomberg.com named the Capitol city the number one “boomtown” in the country, and it is no surprise. Austin’s unemployment numbers are below the national average, and the city has a relatively low cost of living. According to the Census Bureau from 2011 to 2012 Austin ranked fourth in population spikes compared to other U.S cities.
The Backstory – Growing Pains
If you know anyone who has driven through Austin, you’ve probably heard about our traffic. It’s bad. The INRIX Traffic Scorecard Annual Report ranked Austin one of the Top 10 worst traffic cities in the US. Traffic has become such a problem that during the State of The City Address in February Mayor Lee Leffingwell said “it threatens our environment. It threatens our safety. It threatens the livability of our city and entire region.”
It’s why Austin’s city government has been avidly working on solutions to alleviate the problem, but it’s a long-term goal. They partnered with the public transportation provider, CapMetro, to develop MetroRail. The commuter rail debuted in 2010 and has increased ridership each year. There are also plans for UrbanRail, a train system through the most congested area of the city. The project is expensive and could take years to debut. In the meantime, the city’s Transportation department has implemented other tools to get cars off the road, at least in the Downtown area.
The Parking Problem
Austin’s downtown is possibly one of the most vibrant downtowns of any metropolitan city. Its famous Sixth Street attracts thousands of visitors to its restaurants, bars, and clubs every night. Lady Bird Lake, The Hike and Bike trail, and Zilker Park, home to The Austin City Limits Music Festival are also in the heart of the city. It’s why finding a parking spot downtown sometimes could be like finding a needle in a haystack, unless you have ParkMe.
Need Parking Solutions? There’s an App for That
ParkMe is a free application for iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and android users. It can also be accessed via GPS and in-car navigation systems. The city began working with ParkMe in 2011 when they realized much of the traffic downtown was caused by people just looking for an open spot. The service went live in 2012.
“What we found is that 35% to 40% of the people driving downtown are looking for parking, and if we can make it easier for them, it helps with the flow of traffic in the area. We want to get them from point A to point B very quickly,” said Steve Grassfield, the city’s Parking Enterprise Manager.
The app shows mobile users metered, pay lot, and garage parking areas, and it doesn’t stop there. A bubble at each location gives drivers status information in real time. Green means there are plenty of vacant spots, the orange means space is running out and red, well you get where I’m going here. Each parking “bubble” also shows its exact address, pay rate and method and parking times. Another goal of the app is to show people that Downtown Austin actually has plenty of garage parking.
“During a parking study it was found that 100% of on-street parking was being used. At surface or pay lots it was 80% and in garages, it was only 60% occupied.”
Next year, Grassfield says, the app will show users the exact number of spots available inside garages and will even let drivers reserve a spot in advance. The easy-to-use app is just one of Austin’s modern solutions to a frustrating problem. The city, since May, now also allows drivers to use a parking tool mostly used in Europe called EasyPark.
EasyPark is a device used to pay for parking that users can link to their credit card.
The digital timer hangs near the passenger side window of a vehicle and allows users to only pay for the parking time they’ve used. It also means drivers will not have to make a trip back to the car to “feed the meter.”
Grassfield says EasyPark is used by some downtown businesses that may not have parking space for their employees. EasyPark records the data and reports are available for each account.
Although apps like this may barely make a difference in the overall traffic woes Austin is experiencing, it’s nice to know city government is forward-thinking enough to use this type of technology to make our lives easier. After all we ARE home to Dell, HomeAway, RetailMeNot, a lot of other startups and the future home of the second largest operations center of Apple, Inc. (Second only to Cupertino).
How is your city using technology to its advantage? Let us know in the comments box below.