California cities putting the brakes on some for-profit parking apps

MonkeyParking app allows a driver who is leaving a space to alert others and cede the spot — for a price

For sheer vexation behind the wheel, it's tough to top driving repeatedly around the block in quest of parking only to have another motorist slide into a just-vacated spot as you pull around the corner.

Three digital entrepreneurs from Rome thought they had a solution: Their MonkeyParking app allows a driver who is leaving a parking space to alert other motorists nearby and cede the spot — for a price.

In the brave new "sharing economy" world, parking apps — variations of which are operating in New York, Baltimore and Chicago — might seem the next logical step beyond car services such as Uber and Lyft and rental sites such as Airbnb and Vacation Rentals by Owner.

But California cities have been moving aggressively to keep some parking apps off the grid, contending that individuals and companies should not be allowed to profit by, effectively, auctioning off taxpayer-owned parking places.

City officials say that use of coveted curbside parking should be on a first-come, first-served basis and that an app that encourages drivers to cruise while working their smartphones poses a threat to public safety.

In June, San Francisco's city attorney issued a cease-and-desist order to MonkeyParking and two similar apps, citing a police code that prohibits the buying, selling or leasing of public street parking spaces. MonkeyParking next set its sights on Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, whose city councils earlier this month voted to ban exchanging a public parking space for any form of compensation.

In Los Angeles, where the app wasn't even available yet, the City Council this month passed Councilman Mike Bonin's motion to outlaw it.

"We've got a serious parking shortage in L.A., and people seizing and using our public parking spots for private gain is wrong," said Bonin, who represents much of the congested Westside. "This is theft masquerading as innovation, and we need to stop these predatory parking apps before they make the problem worse."

Some transportation planners say the cities' response misses a larger point: that the public parking system is broken.

The advent of MonkeyParking and similar apps, including ParkModo and Sweetch, "exposes the inability of cities to regulate parking," said Paul Supawanich, a transportation planner with San Francisco-based Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates. The apps are "identifying a gap in demand for something and the way it's priced and regulated."

When the MonkeyParking entrepreneurs devised a logo for their street-parking app, they landed on a clean-cut, smiling cartoon monkey in suit jacket and tie.

"Our monkey is well-dressed and coordinated, a sign of the evolution in on-street parking," said Paolo Dobrowolny, the company's chief executive.

First tried in Rome, MonkeyParking connects users by allowing them to enter the location of where they are parked, or wish to park. A user searching for a spot bids on one that is soon to be vacated. The person selling the space holds it until the person with the highest offer arrives. Through the app, a fee is automatically paid to the seller, with MonkeyParking keeping a commission.

Dobrowolny, 32, who is temporarily based in San Francisco, said fees in that city averaged about $7 during the company's few weeks of operation before the cease-and-desist action. He acknowledged city officials' concerns but said his company was seeking to solve an urban problem, not create one.

"We would like to fix something that doesn't work," he said. "On-street parking is not the most optimized resource."

After San Francisco lowered the boom, Dobrowolny urged the city to retract its order, which threatened to impose fines of $300 per violation against the company and individuals using the service. City Atty. Dennis Herrera did not buy the MonkeyParking executive's argument that the app was selling information, not parking spots.

The MonkeyParking debate "touches on a larger trend about innovation and how it sometimes doesn't fit with legacy laws that never contemplated an Internet or the sharing economy," said Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for Herrera's office.

Supawanich of Nelson\Nygaard said the apps could create unintended consequences.

"Will people try to camp on a spot all day and then cash out when the evening demand rises?" he asked. "Cities want to use parking as a public asset, and businesses want high turnover. When you have a company trying to game the system to make money, you could get undesired behavior not necessarily in the city's best interests."

Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor who is an authority on parking economics, agreed that "MonkeyParking responds to a real problem, but it's not the right way to solve this problem." Rather, he said, cities need to set the right prices for curb parking spaces.

San Francisco and Los Angeles have implemented costly programs involving meters, sensors and variable pricing to respond to market demands. Shoup calls them the biggest price reforms for on-street parking "since the parking meter was invented in 1935."

In 2012, Los Angeles adopted Express Park, which adjusts meter prices by location and time of day on 817 downtown blocks.

The goal is to set prices that leave one or two spaces open on every block — to cut down on the waste, frustration and congestion that result when drivers circle the block again and again. Where demand is lower, prices are lower. Where it's higher, they rise.

Express Park quickly demonstrated that many meters were overpriced, especially in the morning. By lowering rates in areas of low demand, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation attracted drivers willing to walk a bit farther and save money. In the first 18 months of operation, the agency said, parking occupancy rose 16%, while average meter prices fell by 11%. Total meter revenue rose by 2.5%.

Next spring, the agency plans to implement the program in Westwood Village and then expand it to Hollywood and Venice.

"Parking reform is working well in Los Angeles," Shoup said.

Santa Monica, which promotes itself as a hotbed of digital innovation, said its rejection of MonkeyParking doesn't mean the city is quashing new technology. The city has partnered in an information-sharing agreement with a locally based mobile app called ParkMe, which allows users to see how many spaces are available in municipal parking structures or find the locations of available metered street parking.

"We encourage any business coming into Santa Monica to be inventive and creative," said Salvador Valles, the chief administrative officer for planning and community development. "However, I think this particular app [MonkeyParking] crosses the line."

Twitter: @MarthaGroves

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