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Parking Smart

According to Ziptopia, 30% of city traffic is people cruising looking for parking.

Technology, in the form of smartphone apps, offers ways to make the task of finding a place to park your car easier.

Credit: Ziptopia

Finding a place to park is one of the most frustrating challenges of the Automobile Age. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are more than 128 million commuters in the United States, three-quarters of whom drive alone; add in the car-poolers, and that's almost certainly over 100 million drivers looking for someplace to leave their cars every weekday. Add the people using their cars to go shopping, run errands, attend events, go out to dinner, and so on, and you have a lot of cars needing a place to stay on any given day, and a lot of urban infrastructure devoted to meeting that demand.

Technology, in the form of smartphone apps, offers ways to make the task of finding a place to park your car easier. One approach—apps that let drivers locate, reserve, and pay for parking—is practically old hat at this point. Two years ago, Communications reported on nine such apps that let drivers pay for street or lot parking, which made up the "first wave" of technological parking solutions, says Nate Breindel, CMO of LockaSpot, maker of the parking app Lock-A-Spot. "They're focused on the relatively finite, regional, and national commercial lot plays."

A second wave has been using smartphone apps to reserve event parking, which some of the first-wave apps, such as ParkWhiz and SpotHero, have grown to include. Again, says Breindel, it's a known marketplace; everyone knows when the events are going to happen, and the parking operators are able to use apps to provide a better user experience.

The market for these sorts of solutions is mature enough that it's starting to see consolidation and shakeout. Jerry Skillett, CEO of parking garage and lot operator Citizens Parking, which manages 320,000 parking spaces across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, names ParkWhiz and SpotHero as two market leaders. "ParkWhiz a year ago bought a company called Best Parking, and then SpotHero recently bought a company called Parking Panda. We don't know which one is winning. It's kind of like the travel business, where you had Orbitz and Travelocity and a few other resellers and aggregators; there's been consolidation in that industry even as they've kept multiple brands going."

Leveraging Individual Spaces

Whether relying on daily users or event attendees, those first waves of parking apps still rely on commercial locations with established, predictable use patterns—the "lowest-hanging fruit," in Breindel's words. "All the major providers are playing along that general continuum."

A new crop of apps, on the other hand—including Lock-a-Spot—is addressing individual parking spaces.

In the downtown urban environment, parking supply and demand are fairly closely balanced, says Breindel. "It's just that much of the demand doesn't know where the supply is. Imagine the efficiency if you knew what spaces were about to be available. That's the ecosystem we're trying to create."

The way Lock-a-Spot works is that when a driver parks and exits their car, they tap a button on the app to mark the location. When they're ready to return and move their car, they tap their phone again, which lists the space as available inventory. Another driver can then use the app to claim the space. "You both see photos of your cars," explains Breindel. "As you see them roll up, you pull out, they pull in."

The driver can choose to make the space available free of charge or for a modest fee, and the app handles any payments—no cash changes hands. "At first, we expect the majority of our actions to be not paid for," says Breindel.

Letting drivers transfer their on-street parking places is not a new idea: a few years back, a couple of San Francisco startups tried to let people sell the metered parking spaces they had occupied, but the city objected. In 2014, startup MonkeyParking got hit with a cease-and-desist letter from a city attorney pointing out that it's illegal to auction off public property. The company now focuses on helping hotels fill their vacant parking spaces.

Parking apps Sweetch and ParkModo, which also addressed on-street parking, have also transformed or disappeared.

When asked if he expects Lock-a-Spot to get a warmer reception from Chicago, Breindel suggests it should, since the app helps the city make money by improving the efficiency of putting cars in metered parking spots.

The Parking Equivalent of Ridesharing

Breindel's company is also working on letting driveway owners rent out their spaces when they are unoccupied. "We talk about street parking because it's omnipresent," he says, "but when it comes to people's driveways, this is still an evolving story—individual owners of available inventory. That would be the next most obvious circle for our business."

Providing access to such private, individually owned spaces is the approach taken by Rover Parking in Toronto, Canada. "The idea came from living in areas of Toronto where you could literally see a bunch of driveways sitting empty very close to areas where either there was a huge difficulty finding parking or it was really expensive," says Rover co-founder Grant Brigden.

Using the Rover app, a homeowner can list their driveway or garage as available for parking, specifying hours and rate (usually about $2-$3 per hour), and another user of the app can claim the space. The app uses online payment service provider Stripe to transfer the appropriate amount from the driver's account to that of the driveway owner. "It's like coming home every day and finding 10 bucks in your mailbox," says Brigden.

The Toronto city government didn't immediately embrace the Rover solution, Brigden recalls. "When we launched (in 2016), one of the city councilors didn't understand what we were doing and said it wasn't legal. But we've worked very well with the city since then, and we're talking about running specific pilots around supplying parking near transit systems," he continues.

Rover is available for download from the iOS App Store or Google Play anywhere in North America, but the company is focusing only on Toronto for now, in order to learn what it takes to create a functioning marketplace and gain a critical mass of users. So far, says Brigden, more than 60,000 people have downloaded the app, which allows them to access several thousand parking spaces in the city, and 25% to 30% of the spots are used on a daily basis.

"People on both the private and public side are starting to see that it makes so much sense from a usability and an economic point of view," Brigden says.

Citizen Parking's Skillett sees such sharing approaches as ultimately limited. "I don't see it as a widespread application, primarily because it's such a specialized situation where it would work. And the money that's being generated is so small that it wouldn't attract a lot of investment."

Is There a Future for Parking?

Technology can make it easier to find and pay for parking, but is technology about to eliminate, or at least drastically reduce, the need for parking altogether? What will be the effect of the popularity of ride-sharing services and the potential for autonomous, self-driving cars?

"These apps are going to be incredibly useful when you want to park now, and useful for probably the next couple of years," says Michel Morvan, cofounder and executive chairman of Lyon, France-based Cosmo Tech, which specializes in the modeling and simulation of complex systems. "But what we are looking at today is the fact that if you have autonomous cars, you're not only going to have less parking, you will have less cars." A typical private car is only used 3% of the time, says Morvan, while shared autonomous cars will be in use 50% to 70% of the time.

"Autonomous cars won't need parking. They don't need to park at your house or where you're going. The need for parking will be close to zero, is my guess."

Morvan predicts most autonomous cars, at least in urban areas (which is where the parking pressure is), won't be privately owned. "I don't see any reason to own an autonomous vehicle," he says. "If it's a five-minute wait when you call for one and you can go anywhere you want, the difference in the price compared to owning a car will be too great."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Skillett disagrees. "This whole concept that the car is going to drop you off and then go sit somewhere outside the city until you're ready to use it again is a futuristic thought. They don't really understand why people drive in the first place: they want control of their schedule. We've found in our statistics that that means is they want to leave their office and within seven minutes be at their vehicle and driving."

However, Morvan and Skillett do share a sense of when a tipping point might come. Skillett says he thinks predictions of a lowered demand for private cars are off base for another 20 years. On that, Morvan agrees: "If the cost of owning a care that is not used 90% of the time is very high compared to the cost of using on-demand autonomous vehicles, it's wont make any sense to own one.  I would bet that in 20 years, most people won't own cars and parking won't be an issue in San Francisco."

Jake Widman is a San Francisco, CA-based freelance writer focusing on connected devices and other Smart Home and Smart City technologies.


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