Earlier this week, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent a letter to a group of young guys working mostly, it seems, in Rome. The guys in question have developed an app called MonkeyParking that, in essence, allows drivers who have been lucky enough to find a parking space on the car-choked streets of San Francisco to sell that spot to other drivers.
Herrera’s letter said you can’t do that — a city ordinance forbids it:
San Francisco Police Code Section 63(b) specifically prohibits the buying and selling of public street parking spaces. The San Francisco Police Code provides: “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.”
The city attorney added that another provision of the code could make parking app users liable to fines of up to $300.
Paolo Dobrowolny, one of the Rome-based MonkeyParking guys and the firm’s CEO, told the San Francisco Bay Guardian in response:
“As a general principle we believe that a new company providing value to people should be regulated and not banned,” Dobrowolny wrote in an email. “Regulation is fundamental in driving innovation, while banning is just stopping it.”
Herrera’s letter warned Dobrowolny that unless MonkeyParking shuts down by July 11, it will face legal action. The city attorney also served notice that two firms that have produced similar parking apps, Sweetch and ParkModo, will also be served with cease-and-desist demands.
We’ll see what happens next, but it seems like we’ve seen this movie before: Some new company, announcing it’s the advance guard of “the sharing economy,” appears in town with a great idea. It introduces a brilliant app-based service that will disrupt a musty, old, inefficient marketplace to the benefit of humankind in general. Sure, there might be a small fee involved, and our beneficent entrepreneurs might rake off a percentage for themselves, but it will be worth the cost for the rest of us. Our lives will be so much better.
Then someone comes along to spoil the party — some agent of the regulatory state wielding a book of antiquated laws and rules and a stack of cease-and-desist orders. The share-for-pay services say, “We’ll think about it.” Then they get to work lobbying the public, lawmakers and regulators to make them see how wrong the existing rules are, how punitive they are to the spirit of innovation and individual empowerment the companies say they represent.
This is pretty much the story for Airbnb, which has transformed the short-term rental market in San Francisco and elsewhere. It has grown into a worldwide business said to be valued at $10 billion even though its rentals are illegal in many cities. That includes San Francisco, which bans renting residential spaces for fewer than 30 days. Airbnb, which could be the target of a San Francisco ballot measure seeking to rein it in, has tried to salve municipal feelings here and elsewhere by agreeing to collect hotel taxes.
The regulatory saga of ride-service companies, such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, follows much the same arc. When the California Public Utilities Commission told the companies in 2012 they were breaking the law by carrying passengers without the required state permits, the companies simply shrugged and told the CPUC, “You just don’t get what we do.” Although the firms were hit with fines of $20,000 each for flouting the law, eventually the CPUC adopted a set of rules that has allowed them to operate pretty much as they please. Uber is valued at $17 billion, though in California (and elsewhere) it and the other ride companies remain under scrutiny by regulators and lawmakers over a variety of issues, including whether they provide sufficient insurance coverage.
So, will MonkeyParking and its cousins survive? Will they convince regulators that they’ve figured out a way of making the on-street parking market more rational and efficient?
Here’s one big difference between Airbnb and the Ubers of the world and MonkeyParking and its ilk: When it comes to facilitating a temporary apartment rental or a ride in someone’s car, those pay-to-share services are dealing with access to private property. Yes, state and local governments long ago decided the public has an interest in regulating how that property is used in some circumstances. But still, when you rent your place on Airbnb or put a pink mustache on your car to take strangers from Point A to Point B, you’re using your house and your car.
On the other hand, the new parking apps are attempting to traffic in public property — something paid for, built and maintained by public taxes and fees. It’s my property, and yours too, and everyone, in theory, enjoys equal access. Honestly, it seems more than a little presumptuous to think you can grant a select group of drivers the privilege to buy and sell the public’s street parking. Not all drivers have a smartphone that would enable them to access such a service, and not all have the same ability to pay under such a scheme — depending on the app, drivers would pay between $5 and $20 on each space or bid for it in an auction. One other detail: It’s against state law and recklessly unsafe to be fiddling with smartphone apps while operating a car.
But of course, parking’s a mess in San Francisco. People in our oh-so-highly-innovative, environmentally conscious region really like driving and are willing to put up with 17 kinds of hell to keep doing it, including circling the block time after time to find that elusive free parking space.
If you listen to ParkModo founder Daniel Shifrin, a guest on KQED’s Forum on Wednesday, his service is all about reducing the negative environmental, safety and economic impacts of that endless circling. He said city officials “categorically don’t understand what this business is” and reminded the audience, “I’m the gentleman who founded Zipcar in San Francisco. I’m personally responsible for removing more cars from the streets of San Francisco and more carbon emissions and congestion than anybody in this city ever.”
He said ParkModo, which doesn’t appear to have a working website as of Wednesday afternoon, “is not trying to privatize public parking spots at all.” Instead, he said, the company is simply facilitating an exchange of information, for a fee.
“If you know when I am leaving a spot, and you’re privy to that information, then you can easily go to that location and avoid the parking search,” Shifrin said. The fee users pay is simply an incentive for drivers to participate in a solution to an inefficient parking market.
Eric Goldman, a Santa Clara University law professor and co-director of the school’s High Tech Law Institute, said in an interview with KQED’s Mina Kim that MonkeyParking and similar apps are “a logical extension of the sharing economy. … In the end, I think the underlying problem is too few parking spots, too many cars in San Francisco. I do think we’re going to see constant innovation in that area, where people are going to try to find fixes to the problem because the supply-and-demand imbalance is just overwhelming.”
If you’re looking for a more down-to-earth take on where “sharing” parking spaces for pay might lead, a Forum listener named Christine had this thought. A longtime resident of North Beach, she recounted a confrontation with a driver who pulled a gun during a dispute over a parking space in the neighborhood.
“People will be incandescent with rage when someone comes in and snakes a spot” using one of the apps, she predicted.
Here’s the full Forum segment: