Most of us can probably agree that finding a parking spot is one of life's little tortures. I don't have a car myself, but I am an inveterate ride-moocher and know all too well how much drivers resent the minutes they spend circling the block.
Someday, perhaps, our cars will park themselves. Until then, there's a growing list of apps jockeying to solve this particular problem -- including the on-demand parking app Zirx, which launched in Washington last month. Just as Uber angled to make everyone feel like a VIP with a private driver, Zirx wants to give users the everyday luxury of a valet service. Its name, in fact, is based on the Latvian word for "rock star."
The nine-month-old app is already up and running in San Francisco, Seattle, downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood. It's certainly pricier than just grabbing a spot at a meter: parking costs $15 per day -- $30 if you want to park overnight. Users can also sign up for a $299 per month subscription. That's a little more than you'd pay for a monthly contract in most downtown D.C. parking garages, but it gets you unlimited Zirx trips.
"I live in a city where you can use Uber, but there are days where you have to drive your own car," said Sean Behr, Zirx's founder and chief executive. "And a parking garage experience is the exact opposite of Uber."
Using Zirx does feel a lot like Uber, apart from the fact that you're handing over your car rather than getting into someone else's.
I got my own demo from the company last month, courtesy of a Car2Go and a parking credit provided by Zirx. It was easy. I downloaded the Zirx app, made an account and used the app to call a parking agent. My agent -- who it should be said was prepared for my call -- met me in a couple of minutes. Zirx generally tries to have agents to cars within five minutes. We exchanged pleasantries and a four-digit code to verify the transaction. Then I handed the keys over (the Car2Go also required its own code, which wouldn't be a part of a normal transaction), and the agent drove off to one of the spaces Zirx leases from parking garages all over town.
Through the app, I could follow the agent's progress on his trip there and back. Users can also add extras to the service, such as a car wash or the option to fill up the gas tank. You can also schedule a return trip when you first engage the Zirx agent, or you can do it on the fly when you need your car back.
I did have a couple of hiccups calling the car back -- I wanted the car back immediately, which the app isn't designed to do. Still, the chances that you'd want to pay $15 to park your car for a few minutes is pretty slim anyway -- if you're using Zirx, you're probably looking at a few hours of parking time, at least.
Heading into the demo, I had one main question: How does this company make sure it's safe to hand our keys over to strangers? Behr understands such wariness.
"We're taking care of somebody's car, and without earning that trust we won't be successful as a company," he said. To cover damages, the company has a $2 million policy that covers users from the second they hand their keys over to the second they get them back. The insurance policy covers any damage that might occur during a job -- "to think cars won't get scratched is not realistic," Behr said. If your car gets damaged, Zirx will spot you a loaner while it gets your car fixed.
Drivers also have to go through an extensive background check. Behr checks their names and Social Security numbers against national and state records, as well as sex offender databases and, of course, driving violations before they can sit for a driving test with Zirx. Then the company gives potential drivers a 60-point field test to make sure they can handle whatever vehicles get sent their way.
While agents are in the car, they're being tracked by the company from headquarters. If drivers deviate too far or too long from the suggested path the app lays out for them, they are contacted by the company's local headquarters for an explanation. Behr said that the insurance also overs any instances of theft, though he added that's not a problem he's had to think much about so far.
Zirx is also learning from the mistakes of other companies, such as Uber, that have faced criticism over data security and privacy practices. (Zirx employees, I should say, were too polite to specifically call out Uber. I'm not.) Zirx can collect a lot of information -- locations of pickups and dropoffs, car makes and models and financial information -- not to mention the physical locations of dozens of largely unattended cars at any time, though Zirx says it only partners with garages that have security systems in place.
Behr tackles this problem a few ways. For one, agents aren't allowed to disclose the location of Zirx garages to customers. "I don't want any customer or any group of customers to know where the cars are parked," he said. He's also designed data protocols to make sure most employees can't access the aggregate data that Zirx collects, he said. Only top-level employees are allowed to look at that bulk information.
As one of the folks who does get to look at the aggregate data, Behr said that he has seen some interesting trends emerge that have helped him get agents to the right spots at the right time. For example, there doesn't seem to be a "typical" way the Zirx customers are using the service yet; it varies by place. In San Francisco the largest contingent of customers are sending for their cars to be parked at 9 a.m. and picked at 6 p.m. In Hollywood and, now, Washington, D.C., usage spikes at night when people are heading to shows or to dinner out.
He's also noticed that the service is popular with women, such as moms who have their hands full with kids and don't want to park and women who are headed out at night and don't want to walk far to and from their parking spaces.
One trend that is consistent across the country, however, is repeat use. Some D.C. customers have already started using it daily, he said.
"Some people buy Zirx as their parking space," he said. "Especially in places like Foggy Bottom, rather than find street parking, they buy a monthly Zirx subscription."