Nearly two months after the global design and planning company, Populous, released a report saying South by Southwest and the city of Austin could do more to improve public safety and manage growing crowds at the festival, organizers are trying to test out some of the report’s recommendations.
Last Friday, on Halloween, South by Southwest organizers worked with private businesses on Sixth Street to set up three cameras on the street between Brazos and Red River streets. According to the festival organizers, the goal was to monitor crowd activity because Halloween and the first night of Formula 1 would attract crowds similar to those at SXSW.
According to a lawyer with the festival, SXSW believes the city could do more to deal with issues of overcrowding on Sixth street.
SXSW would not say where exactly the cameras were located.
Public safety at SXSW has become an increasing concern for residents, SXSW and the city of Austin, as the festival continues to grow in size each year, and the number of unofficial events also increases. Organizers have raised concerns that the festival is growing too big for the city to handle without creating more substantive safety plans or more city resources.
Safety became an even larger issue after this year's festival, when a car drove through street barricades on Red River, killing four people and injuring dozens more.
SXSW was already monitoring crowd density during this year’s festival.
“The Sixth Street experience is part of our event, since we have music showcases in some - but not all - of our venues downtown. We want our registrants to have a good experience,” says Laurie Velasco, lawyer for SXSW, in an email.
Last Friday was the second time SXSW has set up cameras on Sixth Street, but the first time it has done so when the festival isn’t underway.
Halloween is the only night the city puts barricades down the middle of Sixth Street, allowing space for emergency vehicles to get through. Usually, when the street is closed for pedestrians people can walk freely back and forth across the street.
The Populous report suggested pedestrian barricades down the middle of Sixth Street as a possible safety solution. Velasco says SXSW wanted to compare crowd density on blocks with the center lane barricades to blocks without barricades.
While the report said SXSW and city operations appeared to be working well, it said the festival has grown so large it’s difficult for the company to “have a strong grasp of all the operations in a short amount of time.”
“The SXSW event and the downtown Austin area, particularly 6th Street, appears to be at a critical juncture in terms of risk, liability, and general success,” the report says. “The potential for serious risk and liability incidents appears to be high…” The report cites crowd size, confinement limitations due to streets, buildings, and the nature of the crowds as reasons for that risk.
The report goes on to say SXSW and the city of Austin risk damaging their reputations if these potential issues continue and aren’t remedied.
After the report was released, SXSW said in a statement it agrees with most, but not all of Populous’ assessment of the festival. However, in a statement, SXSW reiterated concerns about the unofficial ‘pop up’ events that increasingly exist alongside official SXSW events.
“Parts of 6th Street are severely overcrowded and can't support more pop-up events.” said SXSW officials in a statement. “The majority of the unofficial events are in existing businesses and this would not affect them. The most important part of what we're asking for is a comprehensive safety plan that will include not just SXSW events, but every other significant activity downtown during our event.”
Populous also suggested increased lighting on side streets, entrance areas and on Sixth Street to as a way to improve safety and expose criminal and unruly behavior.
SXSW wanted to test out extra lighting on Halloween to increase visibility in areas with poor lighting, but a lawyer with SXSW said after talking to APD they decided the lights would take up too much space.
SXSW organizers alerted city officials they were setting up the cameras, but city officials repeatedly told KUT no city resources or services were used.