Saturday, November 14, 2009

Innotech, or a digression about parking spots in downtown Austin

Innotech is an annual one-day technology conference in Austin, TX. This year it took place on October 29. Before I can speak about it, I should talk about getting there, and the most complicated part of getting there is finding a parking spot in downtown Austin. The process of searching for one also provides the greatest thrill you are likely to have at Innotech, if by thrill we mean a nervous rush. I used to think of it as my personal deficiency that finding parking in downtown Austin (or most other cities, for that matter) stresses me out so much. But here's an article "Why Speakers Earn $30,000 an Hour - Confessions of a Public Speaker"> by Scott Berkun, where he says finding the right address and parking in unfamiliar places is stressful! Ah, I feel so validated.

The parking garage at the Austin Convention Center was full at last year's Innotech; this year I didn't even bother to check it. And street parking often has 3 hour limit, and costs $1 an hour. A bit steep for the whole day. I thought I'd park in a public parking garage, but they seem to be on every corner when you're NOT looking for one, and damn hard to find when you are. Every garage appears to be reserved for employees of that particular office building, or if they are open to the public, they charge thereabouts of $20 a day. Steep.

Downtown Austin also has a scattering of paid parking lots; it's been a bit of a mystery to me why those parking lots aren't used by offices or restaurants attached to it. Maybe I haven't been paying attention, and there is nothing attached to them, or whatever it was has closed or was torn down. Often those parking lots don't have attendants. What they have instead are kind of vertical boxes with slots you should stuff money into. They take coins and bills. There is also a piece of metal hanging from a string that you should use to stuff coins and bills into the slot, should they get stuck just inside the slot.

A slot for coins and bills in a self-pay parking lot A metal stuffer to stuff coins and bills into a slot

Fortunately, parking at one of those lots costs only $5 a day, so it's a good deal. This year I stuffed my $5 bill into my slot without difficulty, but last year was a different matter. I didn't have enough bills, but I had a purse full of quarters back from the days when I used a paid laundromat at an apartment complex. I don't have much use for those quarters, so I stuffed 20 of them, one after another, into the slot, and I had to wiggle that metallic stuffer really hard. A guy who parked in the same lot at the same time, asked if I was going to Innotech. He was going there too. However, he didn't have enough $1-$5 bills or coins. So I fed quarters into his slot too (as I said, I don't have much use for them). He was thankful and said it must be true what they say about people being friendly in Austin. (He had moved here from California.)

Just as last year, I wondered how ironic it was that I had to use such an outmoded, awkward way to pay for parking before I could get to a conference on all things high-tech. Besides established tech companies, this conference also features selected Austin startups. I wished any of those startups that gave 8-minute talks on the Beta Summit panel had poured its energies into technologies that would let you pay for parking with your cell phone. That has to be possible, right? I've heard it's already possible in some parts of the world. And you don't necessarily have to install fancy, expensive parking meters that would interface with your phone directly. You could simply pay by a text-messaging the company that owns the parking lot.

But now that I thought about it, I'm not sure companies who own parking lots would want such a thing. They don't have to care about convenience for customers, because they don't have to compete for customers. Parking is very hard to find downtown. Space is limited and it won't grow magically. People will put up with inconvenience just to get a parking spot, because what choice do they have? So probably nothing will happen, unless it could be somehow demonstrated that companies would save expenses by adopting a more efficient way of collecting payments for parking.

From here I can seque to Innotech. That will be my next blog post.

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