Private auctions of public parking spots are bad public policy


Flickr user Charley Lhasa

Meet MonkeyParking, an app that's been offering drivers in Rome and San Francisco this dubious proposition: "make money every time that you are about to leave your on-street parking spot."

The app facilitates what's essentially an auction. Maybe you've got precious public curb space you're about to give up. No doubt frustrated drivers are circling for just such a prize. MonkeyParking pairs the two – with bids starting at $5 a spot. The app's creators argue that such a marketplace optimizes parking supply and cuts down on the congestion and pollution that come from so many cars circling the block.

But if something about this idea – a private auction of a public asset – seems... not quite right, you are not alone. San Francisco's city attorney earlier this week sent MonkeyParking a cease-and-desist letter, citing police code that makes it illegal to “enter into a lease, rental agreement or contract of any kind” for public parking spots.

City code everywhere is full of regulations that have not quite caught up to potentially beneficial innovation. This is not an example of that.

Technology has suddenly made it possible to monetize on a large all kinds of things: Airbnb wants to commodify your spare bedroom, Lyft your empty passenger seat, TaskRabbit your spare time, 1000 Tools your unused power drill, Leftover Swap your, well, leftovers.

But all of these platforms share an unquestionable – if not universally appealing – premise: The seller is offering something that's arguably his or hers to give. Not so with MonkeyParking and a handful of other apps that have sprung up around the same concept (San Francisco is also warning off two other apps, Sweetch and ParkModo).

By straying into private transactions over communal assets, these apps are likely to produce a number of unintended (not to mention unfair) consequences. They threaten to price the poor and the smartphone-less out of parking. They could undercut a city's efforts to manage parking supply through holistic pricing policy. And they're likely to produce parking squatters – people who will wait to give up a spot until they know they've got a buyer.

Jenny Xie at CityLab had a good backgrounder last month on how ParkingMonkey works, and the rationale of its founder, Paolo Dobrowolny, who no doubt foresaw such a legal bind. "He argues MonkeyParking doesn't broker parking spaces themselves," Xie wrote, "but rather the valuable information that somebody is just about to leave a spot."

San Francisco is obviously not buying the distinction. Here's the threat from city attorney Dennis Herrera in announcing the cease-and-desist:

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.

Drivers who use the app face $300 fines. MonkeyParking, by encouraging them to do so, could face $2,500 civil penalties under the state's Unfair Competition Law. What's more, Herrera warns that every download, purchase and sale of a parking spot may constitute a separate violation. The city has asked Apple to remove the app from its store (although, as of this writing, it was still available for download).

If the real goal here is to optimize parking, it's worth noting that San Francisco already does a better, more innovative job at this than just about any city of America.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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