A New Parking App That's Virtually Guaranteed to Stir Up Controversy

MonkeyParking lets users bid for street parking spaces occupied by other drivers. 

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Say you've been circling around downtown for 20 minutes, hunting for a street parking spot — and failing. At that point, you can keep circling, give up and find a garage, or vow never to take your car into that part of the city again.

In San Francisco and Rome, at least, there’s now another option, and it's decidedly controversial. With MonkeyParking, an audacious new mobile app from Italy, you can bid for a parking spot already occupied by somebody else. Here’s how it works.

Requesting parking (screenshots via MonkeyParking

To find parking options, you first drop a pin on the map to broadcast your request for spots nearby and then select how much you’re willing to pay — currently the options start at $5 and go up to $20. People who’ve listed their parked cars on the app will get a notification that someone wants their spot. At that point, they can either accept the bid right away, wait a bit to see if there are higher bids, or ignore it completely if they’re not ready to leave.

In San Francisco last month, MonkeyParking co-founder and CEO Paolo Dobrowolny rented a car to personally test out the service. He put out a request for parking in the SOMA district and offered $5. His bid was promptly accepted by someone who'd been getting ready to leave work. From this sample scenario, you can imagine, say, people listing their parked cars as they prepare to leave a restaurant or the gym.  

Responding to bids (screenshots via MonkeyParking

The app, currently only available for iOS devices, launched in San Francisco last month and in Rome about ten days ago. Though the app is not taking any commissions during this beta stage, eventually the business model is to take a percentage of successful bids.

So far, MonkeyParking has triggered no shortage of backlash — there are complaints that it’s partial to the rich, that it would encourage parking spot "squatters," that it, quite frankly, creates shady profits off public property. 

Dobrowolny is unfazed. He argues MonkeyParking doesn't broker parking spaces themselves,  but rather the valuable information that somebody is just about to leave a spot. In other words, the meters will still be fed, but the app gives parked drivers an incentive to sync up with drivers desperate for a spot right now.

This sort of parking space optimization, Dobrowolny argues, can reduce the time people spend circling the blocks, and as result, cuts down on traffic, fuel consumption, and pollution as well.

Dobrowolny thinks his team will also be able to enforce fair behavior. They'd observe for suspicious patterns —  i.e. the same person is engaging in the same actions in one space in a short timespan  and remove the "cheaters." Once more data is available, they can also regulate users with a rating system. 

While the bidding system certainly favors those with more money to spare, it’s also how MonkeyParking plans to gather data on how much various parking spaces are really worth at different times of the day. With that information, Dobrowolny says MonkeyParking could, for example, run an algorithm that automatically generates bids. 

A map of MonkeyParkers near San Francisco's Financial District on May 21, 2014 (screenshot via MonkeyParking app) 

MonkeyParking is still taking shape and there’s a lot more fine-tuning to be done. Dobrowolny says that compared to earlier iterations of the app tested in Rome over the last year, the current approach is getting much more user engagement — about 65 percent of people who downloaded the app are listing their cars on the map. But he says not all of those people are following through and accepting bids just yet.

Last week, MonkeyParking launched a "contest" that lets people vote for the next city to get the service. So far, New York City has the most votes, followed by Boston, and then locations dispersed around the world.  

Meanwhile, both the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office and Municipal Transportation Agency are still trying to figure out how to respond. A spokesperson for the SFMTA says they're "assessing the concerns and determining the most appropriate approach." And according to a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, evaluating the legality of this service will be a long-term process. 

At this rate, MonkeyParking could gain traction before confronting any real efforts at regulation — that is, assuming the parking space "hand-offs" transpire as smoothly as users will expect it to. Knowing how unpredictable road and traffic conditions can be, that's hard to guarantee. 

Top image: Moreno Novello / Shutterstock.com

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