Austin you're drunk, go home! Wait, what's that? You can't catch a cab because it's 2:00 a.m. and it's the middle of SXSW, Uber jacked up its prices, and pedicabs won't take you all the way to the only part of Austin you can afford to live in? Well that, my friends, is a big drinking problem.
It may come as no surprise to locals but Austin's downtown zip code 78701 boasts the highest sales of alcohol in the state of Texas — over $1.5 Billion worth in the last decade.
That fact, coupled with local transportation infrastructure's failure to keep up with demand, has officials worried about public safety and how that might affect the long term image of our fun-loving city. You need to look no further than what has been roundly reported as a DWI incident in which a man killed 3 SXSW attendees and injured dozens more, for some evidence supporting that as a valid concern.
Much more below the jump including how SXSWers responded to Jimmy Kimmel's question, “Are You Drunk…” One consistent refrain I hear from folks who visit our fair city on official business is that we drink a lot. It's true. Look at event or community calendar and there is no lack of happy hours at which you can socialize and network seven days a week. It seems no time morning, noon, or night is a bad time to have a drink in Austin, Texas.
The Violet Crown, as it is fondly referred to, is a college town, a music town, a festival town, and increasingly a year-round tourist destination. All of these factors contribute to copious amounts of alcohol present at nearly every type of event: big, small, private, public, work or social. Many people are unaware, but the Capitol culture of endless free booze sponsored by lobbyists every other year amounts to a mini-SXSW within the legislative bubble that also gets burst when high profile accidents occur.
In 2013 — the most recent session — State Representative Naomi Gonzalez (who just lost her reelection bid in El Paso in the March 2014 primary) was charged with a DWI after hitting a car that in turn injured a cyclist. The prior session, a staffer hit and killed a jogger after leaving a party intoxicated. She was recently released on probation after serving jail time.
Drinking is a big part of Austin culture, and many of our musicians and artists in the Live Music Capitol of the World spend their days and nights waiting tables, fixing lattes and serving drinks in between gigs and touring. That also means drinking is big business, and the explosion of local craft breweries also confirms that.
Austin locals may drink a lot on their own, but these numbers also include all of our out of town friends who expect us to live up to our reputation when they come to visit. According to a report by the Austin American-Statesman, the number one seller of alcohol by dollar amount in the city is hotels, with the Four Seasons topping the list. What these numbers do not include are alcohol sales by grocers and stores that fuel our at-home and after-hours scene.
Drinking can be fun but that leaves the big often open question of how folks get home.
To deal with the added volume of SXSW, Cap Metro provided special extended hours until 3:00 a.m. for locals and visitors. It was a great step to reducing drunk driving incidents and a move many locals would like to see during non-SXSW times. Of course public transportation is expensive, so to make that case we must start factoring in the social and public safety costs as the growth of our city and its entertainment industry seems far from ever slowing down.
While city and regional officials work to expand public transportation options, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and public safety officials are forced to deal with the reality of drunk people on the road night after night. He blamed the lack of taxis and overnight parking garages as contributors. As Acevedo also told the Austin American Statesman:
We're at – or near – the top of a lot of really great lists. One of the bad lists we're constantly on is hardest-drinking city…That gives me heartburn. In this city, drunken drivers have killed hundreds of people in the past 10, 15, 20 years. They're a menace to public safety.”
One idea to mitigate this problem that's being tossed around is the creation of “sobriety centers.”
There has been a decade long effort in Travis County to make these — think “drunk tank” — facilities a reality. They would allow for officers to warehouse individuals until they were sober instead of booking them in jail and charging them with a crime. Acevedo implemented a new policy a couple of years ago that has APD officers concentrating on more serious crimes over simple public intoxication. According to the Statesman, “As a result, public intoxication arrests have plummeted by a third in recent years, from about 6,700 in 2009, to 4,300 last year.”
Late night host Jimmy Kimmel mentioned the proposition of sobriety centers while poking fun at Austin drinking culture during the week that he was here for SXSW shooting his show. In jest he said, “I thought it wasa crime to not be drunk in public.” He used a regular feature of his show to go out on the street and ask SXSWers “are you drunk.” The results are pretty funny and you can see the clip on YouTube here.
The efforts at sobriety centers and other policy changes do not mean Acevedo is soft on drunk driving, as the Chief is also a supporter of APD's controversial “no refusal” policy that draws blood from individuals who are thought to be driving while intoxicated. According to the City of Austin's website, “The initiative is an effort to enforce DWI laws, keep the public safe, and to conduct blood search warrants on suspects who refuse to give a breath or blood specimen as required by law.”
Austinites love to party, but part of those plans must include how we get home at the end of the night. We must do more to look out for each other, because as we saw with SXSW it only takes one drunk to put the damper on a city-wide party and end someone's life.
The bottom line is with the addition of expanded public transportation and a little personal responsibility we can have it all — the fun and the money. So cheers Austin, because I think that's something we can all drink to.
You can follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.