Can SpotScout Take the Pain out of Parking?

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SpotScout has signed up enough garages to offer a decent range of choices within walking distance of their destinations. But garages won’t have much incentive to sign up as SpotCasters (which means having an active Internet connection in the garage, tracking the number of available spaces, and the like) until there are a lot of people using the service.

Rollert hopes old-fashioned competition will take care of the second problem. “Once one local garage can take Internet-based reservations, maybe their competitor across that street hears from somebody that they booked their spot in advance, and this competitive practice will take place, just like it did with,” says Rollert. “Once there was aggregation, the Marriotts and the Hiltons said, ‘Okay, we can’t afford to be left out of this picture.'”

And there’s another element of SpotScout’s business plan that seems to be asking for trouble. Say you’ve found a precious on-street parking spot on Newbury Street, Boston’s posh fashion row, and you know that you’ll be leaving at 3:15 p.m., when your meter runs out. You can send that information and the spot’s exact location to SpotScout, which will sell it for a buck or two to someone else who’s looking for parking in that neighborhood. The transaction is anonymous and the money gets transferred between accounts automatically; all you have to do is leave your spot at the promised time.

At first blush, it sounds like a good idea. If you knew that someone was about to vacate their on-street parking spot, you wouldn’t have to drive around in circles looking for one. (And you’d save gas and reduce your emissions in the process.) But in practice, it’s easy to imagine the service generating controversy—if not outright fisticuffs. Think about it. If you’re a SpotScout user and you’ve already paid for the information that someone is leaving their Newbury Street spot, you’re likely to feel a little bit entitled to that space. If someone else chances upon the open spot 10 seconds before you arrive, you’re likely to have a few choice words for the parking poacher. It’s not hard to imagine things getting out of hand. TKOs in front of DKNY?

SpotScout LogoSpotScout goes out of its way to explain on its website that public parking spaces cannot be reserved and thus cannot be guaranteed. People leaving on-street spaces are selling only the information about their departure time—not the spot itself.* (Even that much is illegal in some cities, including New York, Rollert acknowledged in response to an audience question at the Web Innovators meeting.) But while I might be underestimating my fellow urbanites, I predict that SpotScout will have to abandon the on-street SpotCasting feature after the first couple of newspaper stories about this new outlet for road rage. Some things are best left un-monetized.

Rollert, for now, is just focused on getting SpotScout up and running. He says the company has focused its garage-recruiting efforts on Boston, where the service could go live as early as this week, and on New York and San Francisco, where it will be switched on by mid-April. Other cities will follow. “The largest supply will be in Boston, New York, and San Francisco at the beginning, just because of the way people have been pre-registering,” Rollert says. “But that doesn’t mean you won’t find spots in Chicago, Seattle, and Miami.”

Personally, I’m intrigued by, but withholding judgment about, Rollert’s argument that SpotScout is good for the environment. The idea is that if people can drive straight to a pre-arranged parking spot, they won’t spend as much time clogging streets, burning gas, and spewing carbon dioxide. I get that, and it does seem indisputable that there are inefficiencies in today’s system—picture the driver tooling endlessly around Boston’s North End when there may be a reasonably-priced lot with an open space at Faneuil Hall—that an information service like SpotScout could eliminate. Plus, you have to admire SpotScout’s canniness in appealing to drivers’ (and investors’) current concerns about urban congestion and global warming.

My question is about what happens if SpotScout really succeeds in reducing the inefficiencies in parking. Wouldn’t that simply encourage more people to drive into the city, in lieu of options like public transportation, leading to a net increase in traffic and emissions? I’m sure there’s some urban traffic engineer at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning with the right kind of software to model this question.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to monitor SpotScout’s growth, once the service goes live, and to try out the service myself. No one likes to be the loser in musical chairs—all the less so if you’ve got a 2-ton metal box that you need to deposit somewhere while you go about your real business. I’ll see you on the road.


*Here’s SpotScout’s fine print about on-street Spotcasting: “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.”

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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