Road testing San Francisco's 'predatory' parking apps | Cult of Mac

Road testing San Francisco’s ‘predatory’ parking apps


MonkeyParking is under fire by the city of San Francisco. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
San Francisco is going after apps like MonkeyParking that let drivers cash in when they move their cars. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

SAN FRANCISCO — In a city obsessed with parking, app developers who came up with disruptive ideas to turn vacant spots into cash found their apps targeted by local officials. But the crackdown might be unnecessary: So far, the sharing economy seems to stall when it comes to auctioning off parking spots.

Cult of Mac offices are in the Mission District, epicenter of the parking crunch, so we took MonkeyParking and Sweetch — two of the “predatory” apps named in a cease-and-desist letter from San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera — for a spin.

Here’s why apps like MonkeyParking and Sweetch, two of the startups named in Herrera’s letter, exist: San Francisco’s parking pinch has become a sign of the city’s tech-fueled growing pains. It’s such a problem that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) conducts the world’s only parking spot census. The most recent one tallied 275,000 on-street spots, with about 10 percent of them metered. Add public lots and garages, and the city’s got 442,000 spots total — or about one parking space for every two residents.

The problem? You can see from the map the city produced that many of those spots are concentrated downtown, not in tech-boom areas like the Mission, where workers can circle for what seems like hours searching for a spot in a neighborhood that’s part residential, part industrial. A bunch of parking apps  — including SFMTA’s own app, which gauges availability and pricing — aim to smooth over the bumps in finding a spot. Whoever cracks that nut could have a real winner on their hands, but the concept of drivers selling spots prompted City Hall’s call for a shutdown.

“This isn’t about disruptive technology — it’s patently illegal and outrageous,” said Matt Dorsey, spokesman for San Francisco’s city attorney. “We could be back in the ’80s with people putting out orange cones to save spots and sell them during a 49ers game, it’s the same thing. You can’t monetize an asset that isn’t yours.”

And here’s the sad truth about MonkeyParking and Sweetch: They’re too new to have the critical mass of users that might make them really useful.

Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
Sweetch designer Florent Lenormand waits to give up his parking spot. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Testing the apps

To start our testing, we put a primo parking spot up for grabs on MonkeyParking, one of three apps labeled “illegal” by the city. (Herrera asked Apple to immediately remove MonkeyParking for violating the App Store guidelines; as of this writing it is still available.)

After downloading the app and logging in with Facebook, we pinned our spot on Treat Street to the map and waited. It seemed like a juicy offering: A spot big enough for an SUV on a street with no time limit — pretty much the holy grail around here, especially on a weekday — but it sat there for hours with no takers. (We contacted MonkeyParking to find out more about their user base, but as of this writing they have not replied.)

We later tried to buy a spot on MonkeyParking, bidding $5 on a spot that was just a block away. After putting in the bid, the app told us that 18 MonkeyParkers got our bid – and we’d get an alert when someone accepted our fiver. Some 20 minutes later, we gave up only to hear my iPhone screech with an alert that Ross had accepted our offer. Three minutes later — not enough time to enter credit card info on our new account — and Ross “was busy, the spot is not available anymore.”

We also got behind the wheel with Sweetch, whose developers say their mission is to reduce the number of cars spewing exhaust while drivers search for parking.

Looking at the Web version of Sweetch, we were offered only one option for parking in the neighborhood — and the spot was six or eight blocks away. There was no info about the spot (Was it metered? Was there a time limit?) other than the location and the fact that the driver, a guy named Florent, was standing outside waiting for us.

We piled into the car and headed off to meet him, but apparently we took too long: As we get closer, the app timed out and suddenly Florent and his spot were listed as no longer available. We loaded the Sweetch Web app again and there Florent was again, offering his spot.

When we get to the location, I immediately recognized Florent from his artfully tousled profile pic (side note: Sweetch could totally have legs as a dating app). I jumped out of the car.

Florent Lenormand was happy to surrender the one-hour spot occupied by his dusty four-door Ford. He’s a designer of the app, and works around the corner with Sweetch’s three co-founders. After being called out in the city’s news release, Sweetch launched a social media offensive about its higher motives. That’s why he’s on the curb, waiting for prospective parkers.

“We really need to educate people about the fact that we’re not selling parking spaces,” Lenormand says. “We don’t tell people to hold the spot for money — we just want to facilitate the turnover. It’s a win-win for drivers.”

Sweetch’s mechanism may be what’s confusing City Hall: The person leaving the spot gets $4 in credit and the person arriving pays $5. Positioning itself as a community app, drivers can donate the money to local charities. Sweetch co-founder Hamza Ouazzani Chahdi emailed us to say that the company is meeting with the city attorney’s office to plead its case.

Sweetch is a little rough right now — simply searching for parking commits you to the closest available spot — but Lenormand says future iterations of the app will include more information about the car and a way to contact the driver.

Lenormand hails from Paris, not a city known for easy driving or parking. He’s been here two months and so far has accumulated no parking tickets but says “driving in any city is really complicated. Here in San Francisco, the city is small but the parking is terrible.”

Five hours into our parking experiment, MonkeyParking popped up an alert asking for the spot we’d listed with and offering us $5 for it. Unfortunately, we’d already moved on.

Additional reporting by Lewis Wallace.

Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
Sweetch’s Web app shows an available parking spot several blocks away. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac


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