Digital Savant: Apps may help you get to ACL Fest
Depending on your attitude, getting to Austin City Limits Festival is either a glorious, people-watching adventure or a necessary chore. During the fest, traffic near Barton Springs Road and South Lamar Boulevard tightens up like a migraine headache. Your transit options come down to a long hike from a distant parking spot, shuttling by bus, biking or more expensive options like taxis and pedicabs.
If you’re feeling especially adventurous this year, you can put your smart phone to work and try a few apps meant to get you around more efficiently to see if they hold up under the stress test of a major festival.
An app released this summer by a local company can summon a taxi for you and even show you its progress as it travels to pick you up. And an app that we took a look at a while back has made major improvements to provide continually updated parking information for downtown Austin.
“Hail A Cab,” an app released in late July, is a way to catch a Yellow Cab Austin taxi from anywhere in the city and even in Round Rock, San Marcos or other outlying areas. The free app for Apple and Android devices with GPS is part of a tech upgrade the company is making to its 455-vehicle fleet.
That upgrade includes changing the way the cabs communicate (now via cell towers instead of radio towers), the way they find direction (GPS ahoy!) and how payments are accepted in the car (now customers can swipe their own credit card instead of handing it over).
“Hail A Cab” app (hailacabapp.com) allows a smart-phone user to summon a cab by sending location information — retrieved automatically via GPS — directly to the company’s dispatch system, bypassing operators and, in theory, delivering more accurate information more quickly to cab drivers.
Edward Kargbo, president of Yellow Cab, says that during high-traffic times like ACL Fest, the app can speed up things for customers and for his company. “Before, you have to reach a person, they have to type it in … that process means the potential passenger may not know exactly where they are and there may be a typo or error,” Kargbo said. “It’s a faster way to communicate with our call center and get GPS information within 50 feet of accuracy. You push two buttons and all of that info is in there.”
Kargbo visited the American-Statesman and used the app to call a cab for us for a quick round trip to City Hall. The app worked as promised. In about three or four minutes, a cab was on its way and we could see on his iPhone screen where the cab was, updated every 30 seconds.
Other app features: a map of Austin’s 11 cab stands, the ability to see how much you’re paying on the cell phone screen and, in the future, the potential to pay by phone. You can use the app to call a cab with special instructions (say, a wheelchair-accessible cab).
Because of local rules governing Austin cabs, you can’t enter destination information by phone. Kargbo says that the rules are meant to prevent cabbies from cherry-picking routes.
Another free app, “ParkMe,” has made major improvements since we looked at it last year. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based company, which appears to have taken a shine to our city, has used Austin as a testing ground for parking meter information that is updated every five minutes. It has even been offering Austin drivers $50 to test its app.
The iOS-only app uses transaction data gathered by the city’s downtown single-space meters and parking pay stations, feeds that data into its own algorithms and deduces where you’re most likely to find parking. You choose whether you prefer cheaper or closer parking and you can also see parking garage and surface lot pricing and availability.
In other cities, like San Francisco, sensors are installed at individual meters, but for Austin, ParkMe CEO Sam Friedman believes his company’s method helps drivers avoid a game of parking whack-a-mole.
“It’s not about ‘here’s a spot, there’s a spot, there’s a spot.’ If a sensor tells me there’s a spot two blocks away, by the time I get there, it’s gone,” Friedman said. Instead, the app shows you on a map where clusters of spaces are likely to be.
Steve Grassfield, the City of Austin parking enterprise manager, worked with ParkMe and says it’s far less expensive than other ideas proposed to deal with parking-related traffic downtown and helps solve a major problem. “Thirty to 40 percent of traffic is people looking for parking,” Grassfield said, “It’s advantageous to the public.”
You can’t pay for parking through the app, but there are plans for that, as well as the option to reserve spots in parking garages. ParkMe plans to expand such service to Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and New York. It also is beginning to license parking information to navigation companies.
Once you actually get to the fest, try out the official Austin City Limits Festival app, which includes a map of music stages, food booths, ATMs, water stations and a handy “Find Me” option. Unfortunately, wireless service can sometimes be spotty at the festival, so if you’re worried about getting lost, a paper map wouldn’t hurt, either.
Other transportation options