Monkey Parking vs. The City of San Francisco

Should it be legal to auction off parking spaces?

parking app san francisco

From what we hear, San Fransisco is a little obsessed with parking. So obsessed, in fact, that in May of this year, they became the first city we’ve ever heard of to conduct a parking census. Yup, you read that right. Its findings? The city has 441,950 publicly available parking spaces, of which 166,500 are in garages or lots and 275,450 are on the street—and, interestingly, 90 percent of which are unmetered. San Francisco’s metro population, as of 2012, is 825,863. So for every 2 people in San Fran, there’s about one parking spot.

Hm. No wonder there are apps for this.

Parking in San Fran sucks, and Monkey Parking says it can help

Image via Twitter. "#SFParking means we're never getting out of here."
Image via Twitter. “#SFParking means we’re never getting out of here.”

The app in question is called Monkey Parking, and it connects parking spot seekers with folks leaving them, so that the leavers can make a bit of cash. It works on a bidding system, so theoretically, peak parking times (Giants games, anyone?) would account for peak earnings.

But San Francisco isn’t happy. The city attorney didn’t mince words in a news release Monday:

“Technology has given rise to many laudable innovations in how we live and work — and Monkey Parking is not one of them,” Herrera said. “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. People are free to rent out their own private driveways and garage spaces should they choose to do so. But we will not abide businesses that hold hostage on-street public parking spots for their own private profit.”

But is it actually illegal?

The app's cute interface doesn't look so evil.
The app’s cute interface doesn’t look so evil.

The city says, enthusiastically, yes: “This isn’t about disruptive technology — it’s patently illegal and outrageous,” Matt Dorsey, spokesman for San Francisco’s city attorney, told Nicole Martinelli at Cult of Mac. “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.”

It’s interesting to note that addition to exploring the battle between city and app, Martinelli also makes it clear in her piece that Monkey Parking and others named in the city’s cease and desist letter, like Sweetch, aren’t exactly easy to use. They might not also have a big enough userbase yet to make a dent, Martinelli writes.

Another interesting tidbit: The city’s letter also asked Apple to immediately remove the app. As of this writing, the app is still available for free download in the iOS app store. But though the app is still available, its five reviews aren’t exaclty exalting. One reviewer writes: “This is a terrible idea, and it’s illegal to deal in PUBLIC parking spaces.”

What Monkey Parking’s CEO told Quoted

Monkey Parking founder Paolo Dobrowolny. Image via VentureBeat.
Monkey Parking founder Paolo Dobrowolny. Image via VentureBeat.

The app’s founder is from Rome, a city which apparently also faces dire parking problems. Paolo Dobrowolny launched the app in Rome first, beta testing with users abroad before heading toward Cali’s shores.

We reached out to Dobrowolny directly via email yesterday, and he responded quickly:

Quoted: How will you argue with the city of San Francisco? In what way are they wrong?

Dobrowolsky: We think about it a bit differently as we are dealing just with the information provided by our users, matching drivers looking for parking and people that are about to leave a parking spot. We would like to point out that MonkeyParking is not selling the parking space, we are selling the convenience of someone alerting another to an open space.

As a driver, MonkeyParking is the only way in which you can be aware that a parking spot is going to become available, before it actually happens. This information is totally owned by the drivers who are about to leave… and they leave from parking spots everyday! We want to make that moment valuable for them, providing them an incentive to sync with other drivers looking for parking. The public parking space will be paid to the city by the drivers as it happens today, we are just facilitating the way in which they can find that spot. This is why we believe that there is no legality issue behind the process.

Moreover, we aim at optimizing the public parking space, keeping the highest load factor while reducing the time needed to actually get it, therefore reducing traffic. Less traffic means also less fuel consumption and less pollution, which we believe are valuable arguments to bring to the local governments.

Q: How do you respond to the accusation that the app might be distracting or unsafe?*

D: I think that any app should be processed about it if it was a real accusation. At least any map/navigation app…and I did not hear Google receiving any cease and desist letter about Google Maps recently.

Q: Do you have any thoughts to share on the bigger issue of tech innovation vs. bureaucratic regulation?

D: I believe that innovation needs regulation as that is the way in which great innovative services come out. Companies have to be guided by institutions to deliver a product/service which is safe, fair and valuable, especially when they deal with the everyday life of the users, like Uber, Lyft and MonkeyParking do. Creating a barrier or banning a service does not help anyone to improve and does not drive innovation at all. I was really surprised about what happened with the Cease&Desist letter. At the same time, I am still confident we can find an agreement and an integration with the municipal parking system instead of a battle. I believe that we both have the common mission to get rid of going in circles when looking for parking. Traffic, pollution and people stress are consequences of that and we may help a lot in the process with MonkeyParking.

Q: How do we meet in the middle between innovation and existing laws/city codes? (Or are you not interested in meeting in the middle?)

D: Sure we are interested. By checking real-time user generated data we could prevent 100 percent of the apocalyptic scenarios that people are [dreaming up] about MonkeyParking misuse. Moreover, users rating system currently drives tho whole digital world towards the right choice: this applies to marketplaces with eBay, venues with Yelp and drivers with Uber… and with 1 to 5 stars it simply works!! The middle way between innovation and regulation is making those kind of things mandatory for example, requesting companies like us to present their data about it, and so on. I am pretty sure will end up in something like this at the end of the day.

So what do you think? Is Monkey Parking buying and selling public property—or just information? We’ll return with updates to this piece—we have a feeling this story isn’t over yet.