Pay Here to Park for Free


George Costanza, who never pays for a garage, fights for on-street parking on Seinfeld.

In subtle but potentially significant ways, the Web is changing the way we as urban residents relate to the automobile. Zipcar allows you to rent a nearby car by the hour without visiting a counter — a method of car sharing that could drastically reduce the need for parking spaces in urban neighborhoods. Platewire allows people to flag license plates of rude, antisocial or dangerous behavior of errant motorists. And now comes a website with an idea that, um, may be a blessing or a curse for those of us who value livable streets: SpotScout.

If ever there was a sign that Donald Shoup’s assertion that curbside parking is too cheap for the city’s own good, this is it.

SpotScout will allow a motorist to buy from another motorist information about when he or she is leaving a free or nominally priced curbside space. The price one pays for this information will supposedly be set by market forces: Spaces in busy areas would be worth more as drivers bid up the cost of information about these spaces. Spaces that are free would presumably be worth more, too. Transmitted via a cell phone or other mobile device, this is supposed to operate in real time.

To those who might object to the idea that a private individual is receiving gain for a public parking spot, the website includes this important clarification:

On-street spaces cannot be reserved under any circumstance. Information pertaining to another individual’s departure time may be traded and/or purchased.  Purchase of departure information does not allow, or transfer any rights to a space.  Furthermore, an individual purchasing said information is not empowered with any additional rights over other parties wishing to occupy that space.

So just to be totally clear: it isn’t as if one is paying for the space. One is simply paying for information. If this service were to catch on, the implication would be clear: If people are willing to pay, say, $5 for access to a free on-street space, then that’s how much money the city, i.e., the public, would be losing by not charging for it. Bit by bit, Shoup and ideas like this are chipping away at the previously unassailable notion that on-street spaces should be free or nearly so.

As for how this website might play out in the streets, I think there are potential benefits and problems. It would hopefully eliminate the proportion of congestion that consists of people driving around looking for free on-street parking spaces. But if multiple people learn of the same spot at the same time (either through the website or via the old-fashioned method), it could lead to arguments or worse between motorists who may feel that they are being cheated out of something they bought and paid for.

I was optimistic about this idea at first, but then I ran it by my friend Gary Roth, the author of An Investigation Into Rational Pricing for Curbside Parking. He was, to put it mildly, skeptical. "This is an awful idea," he wrote in an e-mail. "People selling something they don’t own? Selling something they don’t have the right or permission to hold for someone else?"

  • Ah, another reason we love Sblog: trendspotting!

    Reading AD’s post, I flashed back to a bit of parking serendipity from 20+ years ago. I was upstate w/ a rental car and was called back to visit an ailing family member at Sloan-Kettering on York Ave. I drove to the East Side and grabbed a parking space between 2nd and 3rd Aves. After my visit, I hailed a driver cruising for a space and “traded” a ride in his vehicle for “my” parking spot. Sweet.

  • Gary Roth’s comments are interesting, but I don’t think they’re right on. People aren’t selling parking spaces, nor are people buying parking spaces. They are *buying* information, and the services are selling the organization of that information.

    Which is not terribly different from what happens currently – the low-tech way. People spend money cruising around, aquiring information, looking for the right piece of information. But nobody is selling the access to *that* information – not until congestion pricing, anyway.

    It’s absurd, of course. The fact that people would pay for a tip on a parking space shows the ridiculous, misguided, nonsystematic ways of uncomfortably adjusting to a set of serious problems.

  • What this shows is a strong willingness to pay for scarce parking. People sometimes do need to use a car and they want to be able to quickly get off the road and park it.

    My question about this cellphone or PDA service is that this seems like a new and more dangerous distraction to drivers.

    I love that in the screenshot you posted how they both have their hands poised to honk their car horns. Even after yelling at each other, they resort to honking as a form of communication to express their anger and frustration.

  • rlb

    In terms of on-street parking, I feel like SpotScout’s plan overlooks reality:
    How often does someone accurately predict exactly what time they are going to leave a spot? If they leave two minutes early, that spot’s going to be taken by the time that paying sucker gets there. This failure seems particularly likely for parking in a neighbourhood where someone would want the service because parking is in high demand as a result of many people looking for a space.
    So the smart SpotScout-er says “I’ll get there five minutes early just in case.” They then proceed to wait double parked for who knows how long as there prospective leaver decides he/she wants some ice cream after spending an extra five minutes in the sauna.
    Don’t seem worth it to me, but maybe it would have some hidden value for off street parking.

  • I’m reminded by rlb’s last comment about offstreet parking that in many cities there are electronic signs posted directing drivers to off street parking facilities showing the number of parking spaces available at a given nearby lot. This works well to lure people off the street, especially when the hourly price is low.

  • jenb

    I agree with Mattio, they are NOT selling “the space” only access to the departure time info of the person who has it. If people pay attention to their website they’ll see that SpotScout guarantees garage and private spaces, but they cannot guarantee public at all, because there’s no ability to reserve it legally, only to find it. I think it’s pretty smart actually. I can’t wait to try it.

  • david thompson

    Riddle: “How can you tell that someone lives and owns a car in New York City (or any city)? A person who can detect the difference – from around corner or blocks away – between sound made by a closing Car Door(s), that has People in it… or the Car being Empty!” Get it?

  • EKap392

    I currently use the New York City based service whenever I’m looking for parking. It compares all parking rates and locations.


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