Apps That Share, Or Scalp, Public Parking Spots : All Tech Considered A new breed of tech company is offering mobile apps to help drivers using public, metered parking spots sell them to the highest bidder. But in San Francisco, city officials want to put a stop to it.

Apps That Share, Or Scalp, Public Parking Spots

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We've reported on protests in San Francisco against Google using private buses to shuttle its workers to and from work. And now there's another transit fight brewing - this one over parking. A few tech entrepreneurs are selling public parking spots in San Francisco, even auctioning them off to the highest bidder. The city's attorney says it's illegal. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Cruise around the Mission District in San Francisco and between the Pentecostal churches and the trendy new restaurants and people moving in and out, it can be really hard to find a parking spot.

ROBERT APARICIO: I've spent as much as 45 minutes to an hour looking for spots, depending on - like I said - depending on the night of the week.

CAROL SCANLON: Especially with all the construction going on because usually during the day, the construction workers take all of the day spots.

JOHN CARROLL: This is not a parking spot, actually. This is a - we're parked in front of a garage.

SHAHANI: Drivers Robert Aparicio, Carol Scanlon and John Carroll have familiar problems. And now a handful of technology startups have come up with a novel solution. Mobile apps that let people with public metered parking spots sell to those without.

PAOLO DOBROWOLNY: The highest price that is ever been paid is $15.

SHAHANI: Paolo Dobrowolny is CEO of MonkeyParking. He says drivers can make up to $150 a month with his app.

DOBROWOLNY: So I have the right to tell when I am about to leave from a parking spot and I have the right to be paid for giving this information to someone who wants it.

SHAHANI: Parking apps are the newest offering in the sharing economy. But unlike services that connect homeowners and car owners to online customers, these apps are built on a public resource. And before they get too popular, the city of San Francisco wants to shut them down. Matt Dorsey is spokesman for the San Francisco city attorney's office.

MATT DORSEY: San Francisco's police code already prohibits anybody buying or selling or renting on-street parking. There's really no gray area here. It was illegal for the Internet and it's illegal after the Internet.

SHAHANI: The city recently served a cease and desist letter to MonkeyParking. Drivers using the app could be fined $300 per parking violation, under a 1980 statute. Dorsey says this app and similar ones are a public safety hazard, encouraging people to stare at their phone while driving. And they're plain unfair. Say that I'm a blue-collar worker late for a date.

DORSEY: And there's a highly desirable parking spot but somebody is holding it hostage while, you know, somebody with a lot of wealth can outbid me for it. That's not what on-street public parking is supposed to be about.

ARUN SUNDARARAJAN: So the idea that things are built on top of government infrastructure, or taking advantage of public resources for profit isn't anything new. I mean...

SHAHANI: Arun Sundararajan is an economist at New York University who points out that telephone carriers and private garages build their businesses on top of public resources.

SUNDARARAJAN: A lot of the capitalist economy is built on government infrastructure.

SHAHANI: Price is a separate issue. In much of the sharing economy, services drive down the price. Airbnb is cheaper than Hilton. Zipcar for an hour is cheaper than Hertz for a day. But, Sundararajan says, sharing can just as easily lead to scalping or bidding wars.

SUNDARARAJAN: I don't think that we should be surprised if the sharing economy marketplaces do in fact lead to higher prices for certain things.

SHAHANI: MonkeyParking says it will not shut down despite the city's order because it's not selling parking. The app is helping people share information about spots and decide what that information is worth. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.




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