Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
SpotHero lets you find a space like you'd find a hotel.
Chicago's Jeremy Smith was tired of getting parking tickets (over the years, he'd racked up thousands of dollars in fines). So he invented SpotHero, which helps drivers navigate the city's difficult parking rules and regulations.
The website and app lists parking prices and inventory, showing traditional garages along with driveways and spaces residents might want to rent out.
It's been a hit in Chicago, winning top honors in the Apps for Metro Chicago contest. And now, it's spreading to seven cities in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, including New York City and more recently, Washington, D.C. Smith said they chose those cities based on their size and high concentration of car commuters. City governments in San Francisco (SFpark) and Seattle (SeaPark) have come up with their own data-based parking solutions since SpotHero began, both cities now offering demand-responsive pricing, and as a result, cheaper and easier to find parking spots.
The idea came to Smith after he moved to Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, where residents hawk their own parking spots during Cubs home games. Smith quit his day job in 2010 to develop SpotHero, launching it the following year. It's been popular — nearly every municipal garage in Chicago is now listed, along with privately run spaces (the company deals with those owners directly to make sure they're reputable).
The service shows users available parking inventory on a map, and lets you book a spot online. They guarantee that if you book a spot, it'll be there. According to their website, each lot owner they partner with provides inventory data to avoid overbooking. Lot operators can post their spots without charge; SpotHero takes a commission whenever someone books one.
Using the desktop version (designed much like a Priceline or Expedia kind of website) or the app, you can plan your parking much like you would a hotel, choosing a spot based on your location preference and price range.
You can decide where you'll leave your car on what hours you'll need the spot for. After you've decided everything listed at, for example, the 181 W Monroe garage in Chicago is to your liking, you can reserve a space with your SpotHero account:
The app becomes especially useful when you don't plan in advance. Let's say you've arrived on a workday around 3 p.m. At your first red light, you can see what spots are available and how much they cost. If you're more concerned with price than location, you can scroll through a list of parking inventory instead. And if you're unfamiliar with the garage you've chosen, there's also a street view image of your destination.
Smith envisions a future where each transaction, no matter where, involves a quick QR code scan by the driver upon arrival. But right now, there's a lot of variation. Not every lot has a code reader. Some require drivers to leave a printed confirmation on the dashboard. Others match the license plate of the parked car with the one registered on the SpotHero account.
Some may scoff at the idea of an app that enables car-centric behavior, but Smith insists this kind of resource benefits all kinds of city dwellers. "It's a better use of existing inventory," he says. "If we use what we have more efficiently, we won't feel like we need to keep building facilities when the parking spots we need are already there."