A bout of political road rage is brewing in San Francisco over a new generation of parking apps that let users sell or auction off public parking spaces.
The city decries the new peer-to-peer parking apps as illegal and has threatened to sue. City Attorney Dennis Herrera began sending cease and desist orders to several operators of the apps a few weeks ago. Tech startups, on the other hand, argue that city officials have stymied innovation by misinterpreting the services.
The heated dialog has compelled one developer to release a free, open source version of his parking app -- a move he described as an attempt to call attention to San Francisco’s parking problem.
“This is not bulls**t. This is reality and there is a clear parking crisis. It's a nightmare to find parking spots and to drive in the city because of parking,” said developer Hamza Ouazzani, co-founder of the peer-to-peer parking app Sweetch. Ouazzani released a free version of his app, called Freetch, after the city threatened to sue other parking app makers such as MonkeyParking and ParkModo.
Frustrated with the back and forth, Ouazzani said he’s baffled why public attention has been focused on legal minutiae rather than the real parking problems. Ouazzani says the free version of his app removes monetary concerns and opens opportunities for citizens, civic hackers, entrepreneurs, San Francisco city officials and other cities to help.
“If you don't believe you should create a monetary incentive with parking then create something different and do it better," he said. "If the city wants to do something, the city has more impact than us, so we’d be happy to give our technology and help them to build something like this."
According to the Sweetch website, San Francisco drivers spend an average of about 20 minutes hunting for parking and 30 percent of traffic congestion is caused by drivers hunting for open spots.
The Sweetch app charges motorists a flat fee of $5 for information about open parking spaces, and offers a $4 reward to motorists who use the app to notify other drivers when they leave their parking spot. Ouazzani says he never intended to make money from parking transactions, he said. While a $5 flat fee is charged, the money can’t be cashed out. Instead, it can only be used for more parking or donations to charity.
Ouazzani said his original intention with Sweetch was for all transactions to be free and allow drivers to aid fellow motorists by creating a crowdsourced database of parking stalls. The problem with the money-free idea was that no one used it. There had to be an incentive, and based on research, Ouazzani said $5 was the right price — it was high enough to draw users but low enough to discourage parking squatters.
Sweetch profits only if the app is embraced by a large number of users and open parking data can be packaged and sold to navigation companies like Google Maps or Apple.
“The thing I want people to understand, is that we're more mission-driven than anything else,” Ouazzani said
It’s for this reason — and the fact that Sweetch reached out to the city — that the company remains the only active peer-to-peer parking firm that has not been served with a cease-and-desist order. Other companies have until July 11 to pull their apps from Apple’s iOS App Store or face a lawsuit from the city. The suit could demand as much as $2,500 per violation from companies and $300 per transaction from motorists.
Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, confirmed that the city withheld its cease-and-desist order to Sweetch to further review the adjustments of its services. However he said the city attorney is emphatic about his stance against peer-to-peer parking apps, several of which allow users to auction off their parking spaces to the highest bidder.
One of the startups, ParkModo, reportedly announced plans to hire people to hawk parking spots in San Francisco's Mission District via its app. However, the company said the plan was for a one-time promotion, not an attempt to occupy and resell spaces long term.
In Herrera’s letters, the city attorney referred to the San Francisco Police Code, that cites in section 63b under the category of public nuisances, that “It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to enter into a lease, rental agreement or contract of any kind, written or oral, with or without compensation, for the use of any street or sidewalk.”
“It would be up to the city attorney, whether what [Sweetch is] doing is something that is opening the door to a problematic business model or practice that's affects our parking,” Dorsey said.
For other parking companies hit with cease-and-desist orders, the city will wait until after its July 11 deadline before any new action is taken. Dorsey also dismissed claims, submitted previously by the startups, that parking information — not parking itself — was being sold or leased.
“There are things in the law that are plain enough,” he said.
Paolo Dobrowolny, MonkeyParking CEO and founder, intends to dispute Herrera’s stance both politically and legally if need be. He said he viewed Sweetch’s open source offering as unnecessary.
“I think [Sweetch] got a bit scared about what was happening with MonkeyParking and are trying to take some distance,” he said. “An open source app software is not a real answer to the problem in my opinion, it just makes a mess by letting [competition] quickly grow up with other parking apps.”
Instead of open sourced solutions or hard-line stances from officials, Dobrowolny said San Francisco should be an active participant in starting a dialog for regulation in the same way the city and state of California did for peer-to-peer ride sharing companies like Lyft and Uber.
“I think we need to be regulated in order to ensure everybody that even if our mission was not to provide a valuable service, we were obliged to do it. That is their job and they can be really good at it,” Dobrowolny said.
Whatever next steps develop, Ouazzani says his company stands by its objective to reduce parking congestion. He worries that bidding apps like ParkModo and MonkeyParking — which allows users to bid for parking places starting at $5 and going up in $5 increments — may create an incentive for hoarding. He noted, however, San Francisco’s current parking system already encourages the practice due to limited spaces.
“It's not acceptable that we are in 2014 and people are still cruising around to find parking,” said Ouazzani. “I hope [for] just one thing, that people know they should act and not just criticize.”
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.