Via TechCrunch, I learned that the city of San Francisco is putting legal pressure on Monkey Parking, an app that lets people who are parked in public spaces get paid to leave by people looking for parking. At Jalopnik, the same news is covered with the headline, “Use SF’s Parking App For Dicks And Face A $300 Fine” take your pick. SF says that MP is selling public parking spaces, which by definition don’t belong to any individual or company. One might say that they’re actually selling the information about who is leaving a parking spot and when (after all, who’s going to stay in a spot much longer than needed just to make an extra few bucks?) but that’s not really what I think is interesting here.

What’s interesting to me is that Monkey Parking has put a real number to how underpriced metered parking is, even in San Francisco where meters can cost as much as $6 per hour in some areas at some times. When you choose to drive around in circles (or, as my grandfather preferred, to simply lurk at the top of likely a street and wait) looking for a parking space instead of just pulling into a paid lot or garage, you’re valuing your time, fuel, and wear and tear on your car lower than the difference between parking meter and parking garage prices. I’ve been over this before, two years ago. Monkey Parking’s data, if people are using the service enough to generate anything meaningful, would be an awesome heatmap of parking demand, and the position of their prices between meter rates and garage rates would tell us (and maybe the city of SF) a lot.

You know markets are broken when services crop up that threaten the status quo and bend or break the law. To be dramatic, I’d point to the trade in illegal drugs or human organs, but it’s just as easy to check the latest episode of Uber vs cities and/or taxis.

The first item on San Francisco’s parking meters page says, “Parking meters are used to create open parking spaces in high demand areas.” If that’s working so well, why does Monkey Parking even exist? Here’s my free advice for San Francisco: don’t sue the Monkey (ok, sue them, I don’t care, the whole model really is a “dick move”), become the Monkey. Raise the price of parking meters, ideally in a data-driven, real-time, demand-based way. (Your current test where the meter price in some areas is adjusted every 6-8 weeks is weak sauce.) Heck, make your own app that tells people how much time is left on a given meter or where the empty spaces are. And increase the penalties for overstaying or feeding meters, too. 

The only way to really “create open parking spaces in high demand areas” (besides building more parking, and you know I don’t want to do that) is make the metered spaces expensive enough – and enforcement effective enough and harsh enough – to change behavior.  If you know that metered parking will cost a lot, you might choose a different mode of transport or you might prefer to pull into a paid lot or garage, or if you do drive and pay up, you’ll have a good incentive to move along in a timely fashion.