Downtown Austin has plenty of parking.
The problem, according to a study to be released Wednesday, is that downtown has a chronic shortage of available parking that congests the streets with frustrated drivers, stifles businesses and threatens potential economic development.
The 84-page “Downtown Austin Parking Strategy” report from the Downtown Austin Alliance includes — for the first time, the advocacy group says — a comprehensive inventory of downtown parking. In the area running from just south of Lady Bird Lake to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, there are 71,500 spaces, with about 9 percent of those along curbs and the rest off the street on lots and in garages.
The report, a year and $250,000 in the making, lays out not only the elements and causes of the seeming shortage, but also 19 recommendations to eventually open up unavailable capacity while attempting to dampen demand with various measures. Those ideas include providing cheaper parking on the fringes of downtown while potentially charging more for parking in intensely popular sections of downtown such as Congress Avenue, Sixth Street west and east, Rainey Street and the lower Shoal Creek area.
The city of Austin’s downtown meters generally cost $1.20 an hour, a figure that doesn’t vary by day or time. About 18 percent of street parking in the survey area remains free. Privately owned parking spots, including spaces not available to the general public, average $3.65 an hour.
“It really kept coming back to the defining factor downtown was the lack of parking,” said Dewitt Peart, the alliance’s chief executive officer since 2015. Parking downtown “really hasn’t been planned and managed.”
About 43 percent of the off-street parking is available to the public at all times, the study says, while an additional 33 percent is available at various times. A quarter of the off-street spaces — about 16,000 — are off-limits to the general public at all times.
To some degree, the report says, that unavailable piece of the parking pie is due to city policy and the resulting architecture.
Zoning codes downtown historically haven’t allowed the parking garages in large office or residential buildings to be open to the public, absent a zoning exception, Peart said. As a result, those buildings were designed with parking garage elevators that disgorge their passengers into building lobbies, he said, rather than an area where people can directly access the street.
Even for buildings that have a better setup, opening garages to the general public raises questions of potential liability, Peart said, and the building owners may worry that downtown celebrators will leave garbage and other unpleasantness behind.
To avoid those consequences, owners in some cases bar outsiders from using their garages even when they legally could accept them and collect parking charges.
As for on-street parking, Peart said, “the enforcement isn’t there.” The study includes surveys showing many cars parked in spaces for eight hours at a time or more, even in blocks restricted by sign to three- or five-hour parking. People feed the meters with impunity.
Peart said the alliance doesn’t expect the city or state, or private businesses, to act on the study’s recommendations immediately. But he said the study should function as a “heads up,” and the beginning of a concerted effort by both government and downtown business and building owners to address parking seriously.
“We need to make sure we have the right pieces in place before we start turning any knobs,” he said.
Among the 19 recommendations:
• Overhaul how the city manages the 14 percent of downtown parking that it controls, putting the focus on maintaining availability and stimulating use of both on-street and off-street spaces rather than on maximizing parking revenue. Under this approach, rates would be flexible and respond more to demand, or lack of demand.
• Increase the number of on-street spaces from the current 6,400 by such measures as converting parallel parking to angle parking, which packs in more parking per block but tends to remove travel lanes.
• Create a pilot program to encourage owners of private garages and lots to open their lots to the public after normal work hours, charging for parking. The report also encourages the growth of the city’s existing “affordable parking program” in which it rents spaces in city-owned garages after hours on a monthly basis.
• Improve parking signage, including with state and University of Texas parking facilities within the study area.
• Work with Capital Metro to restore some kind of downtown shuttle bus system to take people between more remote parking locations and their downtown destinations for work or other activities.
• To encourage economic development, use Austin’s pending CodeNext zoning rewrite to eliminate the requirements that newly constructed buildings downtown have a certain amount of parking built into them. The report asserts that remaining downtown parcels ripe for development tend to be smaller than those built on over the past generation, providing less room and less financial wiggle room for adding parking garages to the design.
• Encourage private developers, through the zoning code, to make some of their garage parking available to the public (at a charge) for at least some of the time.
Eyes on government
Ben Wear has covered Austin-area transportation agencies since 2003. He has provided in-depth coverage on issues affecting commuting, road expansions, public transit and access to downtown.