Booking Urban Parking with SpotScout. A review.

I wanted to test SpotScout usability. So for kicks, I created an account on SpotScout this last weekend and went digitally hunting for a parking spot in Boston’s south end for a Sunday afternoon space.  I had my pick from a private residential driveway (the most expensive option)  and a public parking facility (the more economical offer). When I interviewed SpotScout CEO Andrew Rollert, he pointed out that private driveways and individual, open-air parking spaces often command more in the SpotScout market because they at least appear to provide more conspicuos transactions given that all monetary exchanges are conducted digitally beforehand, and they tend to be perceived as the safer option;  to the latter point, he added that his girlfriend dreads cavernous parking garages and would easily pay the premium for a spot that is at least more secure in theory.

Additionally, as is the case with Ebay, SpotScout users benefit from a rating system that facilitates the vetting process for both parties, rendering all parties slightly more accountable.

SpotScout is valuable on a micro, individual to individual, level because it allows consumers to access a richer, more complete marketplace for space and in doing so, gives them more control;  drivers can plan around spatial distributions and availability---  potentially offsetting traffic in congested, car-clotted, city streets (one study recently suggested that as much as 35% of city traffic in San Francisco can be attributed to people seeking and (hopefully) finding parking spots.)

Furthermore, by challenging the way consumers think about space, the platform presents an inherent opportunity for cities to re-evaluate the relationship between urban space, people and cars on a macro-level.   For years, there has been a divergent relationship between the parking supply and the parking demand in American cities; that is, the number of spots on the street is relatively static as compared to the growing number of cars on city streets.  In New York City, the relationship between cars and spots hovers around 44 to 1.  In Boston, this ratio is slightly lower at around 25 to 1. By activating the flexible supply of parking spaces in cities, SpotScout helps to distribute parking demands more evenly over the real supply, easing strains on city streets.  In fact, Rollert is so optimistic about this potential that he suggests that in more mature mobile market places they may be able to whittle Boston’s ratio down to below 10 to 1.

Though I can’t tell if this is wishful thinking, I do believe cities could create incentives for other businesses to forge alternative parking packages. For example, grocery stores or restaurants could sell parking during off-peak hours.  Conversely, cities could help design alternative parking packages that would discourage city-visits during peak traffic hours, e.g. creating financial incentives for drivers to come into the city at off-peak rather than high-traffic hours.  When asked about the specific role of cities, Rollert exhaled a sigh of frustration and declared ‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world, it’s up to cities to incentivize different parties; if the city can work with the draws, let’s redistribute a little bit.’  He then mentioned that he’s been trying to get the Bloomberg administration on the phone for a year.

If the platform gains enough traction, the business model itself also presents an attractive range of advertising possibilities for local industry.  Given the predictive quality of the data they cull from each interaction (e.g. Stephanie searched for a parking spot near destination X and she will be parked at spot Y from 6 to 9 pm Friday) and the possibilities presented by geo-coding and location based marketing and couponing, local businesses could easily increase consumer traffic with this platform. Again, the SpotScout model highlights the latent, yet untapped, symbiotic possibilities that exist between an optimized spatial offering and spatial demand.

I should mention here that this parking visionary hardly sees his service as limited to parking markets. On multiple occasions, he mentioned ’we don’t really look at ourselves as being a parking company, once you allow people to trade space, the possibilities are exponential.’  Rollert reasons that SpotScout is starting with parking spaces because there is a heightened demand for an aggregator and facilitator in these types of spatial exchanges.  Yet, he envisions a broader scope for SpotScout, one that redefines the way we deal in spatial commerce.  He reasons that once SpotScout establishes itself as a facilitator that is capable of fostering connection -an electronic rapport if you will- between people that don’t know each other, the spatial trades themselves can expand into other markets. Rollert whimsically suggests that perhaps people will be buying and selling the comfortable corner seat at Starbucks with the electrical outlet or backyard bicycle storage?

This is where Rollert’s assertions become a little messy.  It’s easy to make the leap from buying and selling parking spaces to buying and selling bike storage, however, it’s more difficult to make the claim that spotcasters could use the service to extract marginal rents from private enterprises.  As I silently wondered what Starbucks would think about this, I was reminded of the economy of good library tables in college during finals:  kids camping out for weeks, laying claim to the good tables with turrets of text books and vending machine paraphernalia.  I don’t want every purportedly public space to turn into a testing ground for under the table, SpotScout-sponsored black market exchanges.

For the time being, however, we should only worry about service survival.   Rollert is the first to admit that a good service is only as good as its supply which in SpotScout’s case is intrinsically related to user-engagement and a certain critical-mass of spotcasters.  Though SpotScout coverage is not geographically limited to Boston and New York, a query in Dallas is bound to yield disappointing offers. Rollert wouldn’t reveal actual user numbers though he did hint that they were decidedly Boston-centric.

In today’s dynamic yet fickle technology economy, I can only hope SpotScout emerges as a winner.