San Francisco cracks down on parking spot auctions

You can't blame San Franciscans for trying to make a buck. This is a city, after all, where people rent out their living room sofas for $110 a night. Where the restaurants actually get away with selling $4 toast. Where the median rental price has hit $3,200 a month.

Observers say the city is increasingly obsessed with money. So perhaps it makes sense that people there have begun auctioning off their public parking spots.

Officials aren't comfortable with the idea, however, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera has decided to put the brakes on the practice. He's cracking down on MonkeyParking, a tech startup that lets people sell their parking spot to the highest bidder.

You can't sell something that is owned by the city and its taxpayers, people. What's next, cash for subway seats? Fees to push the street-crossing button? Selling the rights to fire hydrants?

MonkeyParking users pay anywhere from $5 to $20 to claim a parking space from someone ready to leave, The San Francisco Chronicle reports. The company already has a legal workaround for the growing wave of criticism it's facing: It's only selling information about an upcoming vacancy, not the actual physical parking spot.

"We're just providing information when someone is leaving," CEO Paolo Dobrowolny told The Chronicle. "That is valuable information for everybody."

San Francisco measures just seven miles by seven miles, and parking is at a premium. There are only 441,000 public parking spots, but there are 470,000 registered vehicles.

MonkeyParking isn't the only startup looking in this area. For a $5 fee, Sweetch's app lets users hand over empty parking spots to each other. ParkModo was reportedly planning to pay drivers $13 an hour to fill parking spaces in the Mission District, essentially saving them for paying members.

Herrera, the city attorney, sent MonkeyParking an immediate cease-and-desist demand on Monday. He's also asking Apple (AAPL) to remove the MonkeyParking app from its App Store. He said he will be sending similar demands this week to Sweetch and ParkModo.

The companies appeared to be defending themselves to the media Monday. "As a general principle, we believe that a new company providing value to people should be regulated and not banned," Dobrowolny told The Wall Street Journal, while adding that he couldn't comment directly on the city attorney's action. Parkmodo's chief executive told the newspaper that his service is only selling information, and there's no law against that. Sweetch says its fee is intended to encourage people to share information.

But many Twitter users were having none of it. "So entitled, so clueless. Bad for tech," wrote Silicon Valley bigwig Mitch Kapor, the founder of the Lotus Development Corp. "Sorry, MonkeyParking, your app isn't being 'banned,' it was an illegal business model well before you even built it," wrote another user.

  • Kim Peterson

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