Car incident raises questions about SXSW’s growth

Eleanor Dearman

South By Southwest has grown from a 700-person festival in 1987 to one of the largest festivals in the world. This year, SXSW featured more than 2,000 musicians and drew celebrities and thousands of guests to Austin, posing a greater risk to guest safety.

“The city is definitely bursting at its seams a little bit every time South By comes,” said Robert Quigley, journalism lecturer and long-time SXSW guest. “We enjoy having all these visitors in town, but I think at some point, they are going to run out of hotel space and places to hold their events.” 

Early Thursday morning, Rashad Owens crashed through barricades on Red River Street, killing two pedestrians and injuring more than 20 others.

Even with blocked-off streets for pedestrian traffic and security presence, incidents, such as the one on Thursday, are still a possibility. 

Dan Solomon, a reporter for Texas Monthly, has been attending the festival fairly regularly since 2000 and covered this year’s festival.

“That accident sounds like it was one of those outlier incidents that you can’t prepare for,” Solomon said. “At the same time, I think that the size of things kind of opens it up to things not going as planned.” 

Quigley said he believes accidents like Thursday’s could happen any time, not only during SXSW. He was unable to attend this year’s festival but has been following the events on the news. 

“It could have happened on a weekend where there is no festival because in Austin, there are big shows on Red River all the time, so it’s not really connected to South By in my mind,” Quigley said.  

One of the concerns being raised by the wreck at this year’s festival is whether or not the event has finally met its maximum capacity. SXSW is scattered in bars, clubs and even churches around the densest areas of Austin. This creates increased street traffic but hasn’t really been more than an annoyance before this year. Despite the hazards of having so many people spread around the city in small venues, this up-close experience offers a more personal setting in comparison to festivals including the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which are limited to one area, such as a park.

“At ACL, it’s cool but watching people from a football field away — I’ve done that,” Solomon said. “It doesn’t feel like a unique experience.”

The City of Austin recognizes the inherent challenges that come with a crowded, widespread festival and continues to monitor attendee safety and adjust accordingly. 

“Keeping our visitors and residents safe is, and continues to be, our number one priority,” Carlos Cordova, a City of Austin spokesman, said in an email. “The City does a tremendous job handling SXSW, Formula One, ACL Music Festival and other large events. Much like these events continue to evolve each year, we are constantly reviewing how we can improve our practices. As with any event, we will engage in a thorough review of our practices once SXSW has concluded and make any necessary adjustments.”

One of the challenges with SXSW is balancing its increased foot and car traffic with Austin’s everyday, already busy streets. Prior to the crash on Thursday, the festival had barricades set up routing traffic, which had created a safer pedestrian environment in the past. 

“It is hard to say that if they had done ‘X’ instead of ‘Y’ that they would have been safer,” Solomon said. “In this particular incident, yeah, they could have had a concrete barrier, but let’s say someone has a heart attack on Red River, and they need to get them out of there, and they can’t get an ambulance through.” 

After Thursday’s incident, cones were set up to create crosswalks with volunteers directing traffic. Police were also stationed along the barricades at Red River to increase guest and resident safety.