Parking garages turn to smartphone apps to attract night, weekend drivers


The entrance to Colonial Parking garage near the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
December 23, 2012

Owners of some of the District’s parking garages are turning to smartphone apps to attract the increasing number of motorists looking to park at night or on weekends, times when their facilities once sat vacant in this town dominated by weekday commuters.

D.C.-based Colonial Parking, which operates 250 parking facilities around the city, is the latest to do so. The firm plans to use an app called ParkMe, which shows drivers which garages have vacant spots and how much they cost per hour.

Parking garages get the bulk of their revenue from 9-to-5 commuters, particularly in the city’s business centers. But some say demand for spots at off hours is rising as visitors flock to the city for social outings.

“We are seeing, in general, a pickup in our off-peak parking business and we want to make sure people who may be a little less familiar with the city feel very comfortable making their parking arrangements,” said chief executive Andrew Blair.

“We hope to capture that customer and take them off the market early,” he said.

Smartphone apps allow parking companies to intercept drivers before they begin circling the block, looking for space.

“What we do is we give them visibility to consumers that are more and more looking to their phones for information,” said Sam Friedman, co-founder and chief executive of Santa Monica, Calif.-based ParkMe.

The push for more transient parkers comes at a time when on-street parking in some parts of the District has become even more difficult to come by.

Just last month, the D.C. Council reduced on-street visitor parking in some of the city’s most popular neighborhoods, such as Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights and the U Street corridor, in an effort to make those spots available to residents.

In other locations, street parking has been cleared for different uses. The creation of bicycle lanes along L Street NW, for example, eliminated some spots in a stretch of the city heavy with office buildings, hotels and parking garages.

Parking Management, which also owns scores of parking facilities in the region, announced a similar mobile partnership in April with Baltimore-based Parking Panda. The app points drivers to vacant spots in 30 of the company’s area garages.

Charles Lancaster, director of sales and marketing, said the integration hasn’t been seamless. The city’s older garages don’t have the equipment needed to connect directly with apps, he said, meaning an on-site attendant must manually complete the transaction.

That won’t be the case at three of its District garages under construction. Lancaster said the projects, the City Market at O, Monroe Street Market and Cathedral Commons, feature technology that allows drivers to pay for parking on their phones.

“What we’re working on is eliminating the human involvement,” he said. “You just show up with your cellphone and it shows you paid.”

Still, motorists are already using the Parking Panda app, and in some places, garage usage is up 15 percent as a result, Lancaster said.

“It’s popular on the weekend and in the evenings because that’s when we actively promote the garages,” he said. “During the days, we’re busy with monthly parkers and daily parkers.”

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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