NEW YORK (MainStreet) Call this an ultimate urban question: who owns a metered street parking spot? If you have a prime one, is it yours to sell?
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Exactly that question now is center-stage in San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera has opened fire on a trio of startup apps that intended to monetize parking rights. In a fiercely worded statement, Herrera claimed that motorists who think about trying to sell off rights to a public parking spot face fines of up to $300.
The apps' developers, threatened Herrera, could face fines of up to $2,500 per transaction.
Understand this: available public parking spots in prime San Francisco (SOMA, Union Square, North Beach, etc) are as rare as hen's teeth. You will circle and circle until your eyes go bleary in the pursuit of an empty space.
Even remote nabes like the Excelsior are chockful of way more cars than parking spots, and in much of San Francisco, pricey private garages often have a big "FULL" sign blocking the entryway.
But what if you could tap an app, find a driver who is about to leave his space, and - for payment of $5 or $10 or $20 - have the person hold the space, until you show up and slide in?
That's what Rome, Italy based app developer Paolo Dobrowolny thought, and it's the reason for his MonkeyParking app, which won the brunt of Herrera's ire. "Technology has given rise to many laudable innovations in how we live and work -- and Monkey Parking is not one of them," Herrera said in a statement issued by his office. "It's illegal, it puts drivers on the hook for $300 fines, and it creates a predatory private market for public parking spaces that San Franciscans will not tolerate. Worst of all, it encourages drivers to use their mobile devices unsafely -- to engage in online bidding wars while driving."
Herrera explicitly threatened MonkeyParking with a lawsuit if its doors aren't shut for good by July 11.
"I wasn't expecting to be banned," said Dobrowolny in an interview with MainStreet. "It's kind of an overreaction."
Dobrowolny stressed that a misunderstanding fueled the Herrera's anger. MonkeyParking, he said, does not sell parking spaces. It is an exchange where information about parking spots may be sold.
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Big difference, insisted Dobrowolny, who worked up that response in consultation with his lawyers.
Will it prevail? Hard to say, but one fact is that there are other players in exactly this space - Sweetch and ParkModo, both also singled out for public lashings by Herrera. Expect more precisely because parking is an issue in urban settings and desperate drivers definitely want help.
Another fact: smart money is not currently betting against the sharing economy. Herrera can rail about the apps, but smart lawyers will find ways around the San Francisco laws. They usually do.
Which brings us back to MonkeyParking which, said Dobrowolny, had a trial run in Rome before he launched it in San Francisco in April. Still, San Francisco emerged as the ideal place precisely because the demand is there and so are the tech-savvy users.
The MonkeyParking business model, said Dobrowolny, is to take a cut of every transaction but for now, to stimulate usage, all the monies that come in go directly to the seller of the information about when a spot will become vacant.
Does it actually work? First impressions - culled from users - is that there currently are not that many MonkeyParking users and the lack of a critical mass is hampering the utility of the app.
Similar could be said about Sweetch and, as for ParkModo, it only now appears to be readying to launch.
Time to count them all out?
Not so fast, because there is the phenomenon known as the Streisand Effect where seeking to censor something actually brings enormous, new attention to it. (Singer Barbra Streisand sought to suppress aerial photographs of her Malibu residence. After she filed a $50 million suit, downloads of the photos jumped up from near zero to many hundreds of thousands.) Herrera might have read up on that, because, according to Dobrowolny, in the wake of Herrera's rant, downloads of the app shot up. That may bring new users which would bring new usefulness.
And that may mean San Francisco drivers may suddenly find themselves with genuine prospects for nabbing a decent parking spot without spending hours on the hunt.
--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet