Parking apps: we want more!

Last Saturday, I spent around an hour driving around the city of Berkeley, California, looking for a parking lot that would take my money and give me a space to park my car for a few hours for the football game. I had Google Maps search all lots in the area and another app, Best Parking, show me different prices charged by different garages and lots in the area. However, Best Parking didn’t mention availability. It also didn’t mention temporary lots open just for gameday or usually-open lots closed to the public on game day, when they are reserved for “football permit holders,” not just mere mortals with tickets to the game.

Best Parking is useful for finding the best rate in a certain location during a certain time. In San Francisco on a weekend, when most lots have available spaces and charge regular rates, Best Parking directs drivers to the cheapest lot around. Best Parking works well as long as the location and time are during a “normal demand” period. It is practically useless during special events.

SF Park, run by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, is an app and infrastructure that provides more information than Best Parking. With street sensors in busy parking streets, it can indicate space availability on a specific block and in city-run garages. It has also allowed San Francisco to charge variable parking rates that depend on demand. This helps free parking spaces faster in busy spots. It is also sensitive to demands of special events, such as baseball games at AT&T park, that can require no-parking on traffic-heavy streets for better flow and charging rates comparable to area garages. Sadly, it isn’t a comprehensive city-wide solution as it covers only city properties and not private garages.

Last night, I saw this ad by Citibank that offered the following stat: “30% of traffic is caused by people looking for parking.” I would argue that that percentage is probably higher during special events like a football game in an already busy town like Berkeley. We noticed that we were far from the only car going from lot to lot only to see that it was full or reserved for permit holders. The commercial talks about a startup called Streetline that provides a comprehensive solution for cities, universities and private lots with various sensors, meters, real-time, automatic updates contribute to traffic congestion. Streetline seems like a great solution but requires an upfront investment to work well, and concentrated deployment in a specific locale to be of interest to drivers. For busier cities and sites it could be very worthwhile investment.

That said, it seems like a simpler solution could work in special event situations: allow crowdsourced data on existing parking apps such as Best Parking. Right now, Best Parking allows users to send photos of a lot’s rate card to update pricing. It could also enable:

  • User/lot owner updates for how many spaces are  currently available, This information could automatically expire after an hour.
  • Lot owner updates for days when lots are closed with the possibility to set up in advance for the entire year (or football season.)
  • Lot ownership, similar to Google+ and Yelp business pages, that verify ownership and give owner updates priority
  • Event-only lots can set up temporary presence, only for actual days of operation.
Cal Bears losing on a beautiful afternoon in Berkeley

Cal Bears losing on a beautiful afternoon in Berkeley

How did my Saturday end? I found a parking set in a temporary lot set up by Berkeley High School, thus helping fund school activities with my parking fee (win-win!) I just wish I’d found it an hour earlier. Oh, and Cal lost to Washington, 31 to 7.


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