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Sunday, June 22, 2014

A New Parking App Wants You To Share Something You Don’t Own

San Francisco residents aren't pleased with how Sweetch asks them to pay extra for public parking spots.

If you’ve driven through San
Francisco’s Misson neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon seeking a place
to park for a brunch you’ll spend an hour waiting in line for, you know
how difficult it is to find a spot for your vehicle.

When Apps And Real Life Collide

To one team of entrepreneurs, the parking problem here isn’t a
problem at all. Instead, it's an opportunity to build a business by
giving those who are willing to pay a little extra a hassle-free parking

Their app, called Sweetch,
a moniker that combines “switching” places and making parking
“sweeter,” lets users pay $5 to get a parking spot from someone who is
leaving. Drivers, in turn, receive $4 when they list their own spot and
someone claims it.

According to cofounder Hamza Ouazzani Chahdi, it's designed to reduce
traffic congestion by limiting the time people spend circling for a

“As the inventory of parking spots on-street will not increase, the
best way to improve the situation is to provide information to people
about parking spot locations and availabilities,” Chahdi said in

He said that while the Sweetch team isn’t originally from San
Francisco, they’ve spent the last six months observing the parking
situation and talking to people in the Mission to help find an
appropriate solution.

Mission residents are not impressed.

“Sweetch is not making parking problems better overall; it’s making
it so a person with money is more likely to get a spot,” software
developer and Mission resident William Pietri told me. “It makes the
problem worse in that it encourages people to wait for a parking space
for people to come along and pay for it.”

To critics like Pietri, Sweetch is just a company trying to make a
buck from public goods. And its product is seen as the latest in a slew
of apps that widen the gap between people who can pay extra and those
who can’t.

Such frustrations are nothing new in the Mission,
a historically Hispanic neighborhood already dealing with an influx of
tech workers and a resultant spike in rents—to say nothing of the giant
corporate buses that shuttle them to their jobs in Silicon Valley.

While walking down a neighborhood street one day, Pietri saw Sweetch employees advertising their app.

“I told them it was an abomination,” he said.

He then saw a Sweetch pitch on the community-based social network Nextdoor.
Pietri was not alone in his distaste for the app—his neighbors weren’t
happy. There were 65 replies, the majority of which condemned the
service and the people building it.

Pietri equates Sweetch to a high-tech equivalent of panhandlers who
jump in an open parking space, wave a driver in, and ask for cash—not
the environmentally- and community-friendly startup the founders claim
to be.

Chahdi says these fears of people squatting in spaces are unfounded,
because the dollar amount is relatively low, and they are not trying to
build an app for people to make money. The fee, he argues, is meant to
create an incentive to let others know when you’re leaving a parking

However, if you list your parking spot and no one claims it, you
don’t get any money. So Sweetch is arguably motivating parked drivers to
wait a few extra minutes to get their $4.

Parking frustration, of course, is widespread across major U.S.
metropolitan areas. And Sweetch isn’t the first app to try and solve
that problem—it’s not even the only app that facilitates payments
between drivers. Startup MonkeyParking turns parking spaces into auction items, and gives the spaces to the highest bidder.

I wonder if @MonkeyParking's next product will be to let people sell their seats on #SFMuni.

— EC (@EC) May 4, 2014
Ugh, @MonkeyParking now has competition. I hate Sweetch too.

— EC (@EC) June 1, 2014
Among other things, it's not even clear whether parking apps like
Sweetch are legal. At some level they amount to trading in a commodity
that neither party can own. If anything, street parking spaces are held
in public trust by the city government.

A representative from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation
Agency told me, "We recently became aware of these applications and are
currently working with other agencies to determine their legality and
how they impact efforts to effectively manage parking in San Francisco."

A City Disrupting Itself 

The City of San Francisco is actively working on improving parking issues. In 2010, the city rolled out SFpark,
a pilot project that aims to improve the availability of parking by
boosting meter fees in a few heavily trafficked neighborhoods during
periods of peak demand. The idea is to discourage squatting at low

The program uses meter sensors to detect open spaces, and it offered
an app that could direct drivers to available parking in spaces and
garages. But unlike Sweetch, the only thing the city charges is the
meter fee.

In fact, SFpark has open-sourced its parking data and encourages
developers to use the public API to create new apps that benefit the

There’s hope that SFpark will expand to cover more areas, bringing
the same time-saving efficiencies these pay-to-park apps promise, but
keep the parking-related revenues for the city, which uses them to
maintain infrastructure, for instance, roads we drive on in the first
place. First, though, it has to pay for its own operation: The pilot
program is currently under evaluation and the sensor batteries have run down, so the app isn't currently reporting real-time information on empty spaces.

Local governments are notoriously slow when it comes to implementing
change—unlike startups, local officials are burdened with paperwork and
procedures. They have to answer to all their constituents, not a small
set of customers. So it’s natural for entrepreneurs to look at a problem
stuck in a logjam of legalities and envision a quick, technocratic
solution in the form of an app. Sweetch is arguably providing a look at
available parking spaces that the city has promised but isn't currently

Is Sharing Really A Business Model?

When I asked Chahdi about the legalities of selling parking spaces,
he said, “No one is selling a spot because it is a public asset and does
not belong to anyone. The members of our community are sharing private
information about the location of their car.”

That argument seems tendentious, since you're paying $5 for a patch
of asphalt, not a piece of data. Since 2003, it’s been illegal to ask people for money in parking lots or when they’re exiting cars in San Francisco. It's not clear why putting an app on top of the experience changes things.

Pietri, a startup mentor and entrepreneur himself, said that Sweetch
is emblematic of the industry’s flaws—a solution to a problem that makes
sense to the wealthy, but that locals hate.

“I came from a position of wanting to like these guys,” he said. “But
they don’t quite get that the purpose [of a startup] is not to make
money, but it’s to create value for other people and make money along
the way."

Entrepreneurs won't stop trying to simplify everyday activities with
mobile technologies. The real test for this growing group of apps and
services will be to see how many, and which types of people the value is
being created for, while balancing the desire for simplicity with the
wants and needs of the local community.

In the meantime, some drivers will have no choice but to circle an
extra 20 minutes waiting for a parking spot to open up. Those who can
wil pay extra for the privilege of parking quickly. Next up: Paying
someone to stand in line for them at brunch.

Lead image courtesy of Pelle Sten on Flickr

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