Sunday, April 17, 2016

America's Pastime: Baseball or Cheap Parking?

A parking lot along Austin Street in Downtown Houston, a few blocks from Minute Maid Park (Saturday, April 16, 2016) 

As the Houston Astros played their home opener last week against the defending World Series-winning Kansas City Royals, america's pastime was restored. No, not baseball: cheap parking at sporting events, or, at least grumbling about the lack of cheap parking at sporting events. The Houston Chronicle featured an article on Tuesday chronicling the high prices that some fans paid to park their car on opening day. Now, remember, this is opening day, not a mid-season matchup against the Minnesota Twins in the middle of July. (Someone paid $60 to park on opening day and didn't get a ton of sympathy in the comments section). The article highlighted the continued construction in Downtown Houston, much of which has taken place on former surface parking lots. (I attended games this past Saturday and Sunday, and parking prices were back to normal. Although, I was disappointed that the Astros took two out of three games from my Tigers.)

The parking complaints even drew a response from Houston's mayor, Sylvester Turner. He offered suggestions that Houston's METRO transit agency might be able to work with the team to create a shuttle system that allows fans to park further outside downtown, and that additional businesses might look to offer their parking garages to accommodate fan parking.

Rest assured parking lot fans, there is relief on the way. There are more surface lots headed to Downtown Houston. Just this week the Astros announced that they had purchased the property that currently houses New Hope Housing's Hamilton Houses. And, not to be outdone, it was announced that after demolishing the Houston Chronicle building, a surface parking lot will take its place (at least for now, we presume).

Parking lots on Preston Street, two blocks from Minute Maid Park

But, as in many other large cities, driving your car into Downtown Houston is not necessary to attend a sporting event. Given Houston's recent new bus network, as well as the recent opening of new light rail lines in the past year and a half, it is a bit surprising that those transportation options are not mentioned at all on the Astros website. The team's directions page offers no suggestion other than driving to the park. This is even more surprising, considering that Minute Maid Park is located within the city's downtown district, and not in a suburban setting, like Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium

METRO has been active on social media for the past week, reminding fans that they can easily access Downtown Houston and Minute Maid Park by bus or light rail. METRO noted that they had partnered with the Astros last year to promote the agency's new light rail lines.

The Minnesota Twins offer fantastic transportation content on their website providing their fans with bus, light rail and train travel information. (I have personally used the METRO light rail to see a Twins game, and it was a great experience.) The Minnesota Twins boast: "Served by light rail, more than 20 bus routes, I-394 express bus service, SouthWest Transit and the Northstar Commuter Rail line, Target Field is more accessible by public transit than any other ballpark in America."

The information that is included on the Twins' website is the sort of information that Houston's sports teams should be providing their fans as well. The Houston Texans provide small mention of METRO's light rail in the team's Parking FAQ's. As the Texans own the parking lots that fans use, it may be more of a business decision to not offer more public transportation options on the team's website. But make no mistake, our athletic teams have the ability to provide continued support of the opportunities that are offered through public transit.

Parking lots along Preston Street, two blocks from Minute Maid Park

Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium, home of the Dynamo and Dash, encourages "guests to consider walking, biking, taking public transit, or carpooling to avoid traffic, save on gas and parking, and reducing your carbon footprint."  The Houston Rockets also feature a page giving fans notice that public transportation to the Toyota Center is possible.

When looking at other baseball teams around the country, many feature descriptions as to how fans can attend games using transit. Even Detroit, which is ridiculed for its people mover and overall lack of regional transit, includes directions on how to use SMART or DDOT to travel.  

Of course, transit robust cities like New York can find mass transit directions on both the Yankees and Mets websites, as can fans of the San Francisco's Giants, and Chicago's Cubs (who strongly encourage the use of public transportation) and White Sox.

When it comes to parking, people generally seem to want to park somewhere close enough to their destination where they can see it. However, in a downtown district this is problematic. To have that sort of access will cost you more, a result of supply and demand. As Houston continues to see its downtown grow and mature, parking, and surface parking especially, may be more costly. But don't be fooled, there is a great deal of parking available downtown. (Check out the Downtown District's interactive parking map to find a lot or garage.) It's also worth noting that based on a 2015 Major League Baseball Fan Index, that the prices for Houston's parking were $15.00, which is almost a dollar lower than the league's average parking price of $15.89.

It might mean you have to walk a few blocks to find a cheaper rate. Of course there are considerations for people that may not physically be able to walk as far, or where taking transit is not practical. But as Houston's downtown continues to mature, you might find that your experience is actually pleasant. You might even find yourself parked on a stool after the game in one of local establishments, forgetting you had to walk a few blocks to park your car. It's important for Houstonians to know that they aren't bound to driving their car to watch the Astros, or any other team professional sports team, or major event, in Downtown Houston. It's a bit freeing to know you've got some other, cheaper, choices.