It’s said that the best things in life are free, or nearly so—love, music (thanks, Spotify!), the stars. And street parking?
That’s currently up for debate, thanks to new apps including one by two young entrepreneurs who are seeking to monetize San Francisco’s street parking with a month-old app, Sweetch. It allows users to earn $5 by texting other users about the hard-won parking space they’re about to vacate. The driver who takes the space, pays $5. Whether Sweetch – and other parking apps such as MonkeyParking - can steer drivers in their direction, however, is an open question.
Sweetch (a reference to that sweet spot of switching out) is the brainchild of Thomas Cottin, age 24, and Aboud Jardaneh, age 29. Before they launched their app, they say they scrupulously researched the demand for street parking, looked into city data on parking lots and meters, and stood on the street for four to five hours a day to get a grasp of parking in San Francisco.
Were drivers willing to alert others for free that their spot would soon be available? No. Would they do so for a fee? Maybe. For most of the drivers surveyed, $5 seemed to be the tipping point—the sweet spot of someone’s willingness to text on an app that their spot would soon be vacant.
But not even six months of research prepared Sweetch’s founders for their collision with one of the city’s most emotional issues. When Cottin recently asked his fellow neighbors on the Nextdoor forum whether they would be willing to test Sweetch, his neighbors responded quickly.
Cottin and Jardaneh were selling public space, privatizing public parking, even—heaven forbid—encouraging drivers to monitor their phones while driving! They are not the only ones under attack. Elsewhere, MonkeyParking has taken heat, according to Wired. And, so-called sharing apps helped to inspire a whole info-riff on Medium by Susie Cagle called, The Case Against Sharing.
Nevertheless, Cottin and Jardaneh are trying to understand what went wrong. “They think we are making the situation worse and we are improving it,” Jardaneh said in an interview on Saturday. “We’re looking for solutions. If there is another solution we are happy to work on it.”
They had just returned from doing more street surveys and got quite a different reaction from Nextdoor’s, they said. People told them that they are willing to use the app and like the idea that users can easily donate the money to charity.
Sweetch discourages drivers from keeping the $5 because, if they do so, they pay a 20 percent transaction fee. But as with other apps that use money to elicit parking cooperation, there appears to be concern that some users will simply make money off free parking.
Cottin and Jardaneh say they will easily be able to see when drivers are abusing the system and can block them.
When they tried to explain this on Nextdoor, what ensued was a lively discussion that in large part urged them to reconsider their app.
“You know people will find a way to capitalize on this, to abuse this,” wrote one participant. While she understood the madness of finding parking and would sometimes even be willing to pay, she added, the system was fraught with problems. “I think you need to reevaluate what kind of resource your app was trying to provide, whether it is actually resourceful.”
Another, stating flatly that Sweetch was a “terrible idea,” wondered what would happen if she was driving around and tried to pull into a spot already promised to a Sweetch driver. “Do I need to fight for my right to park?” she asked.
Another pointed out that $5 a day is pocket change for “some of us, but it is grocery money for a large number of families in the Mission.”
The solution to such outbursts?
Education, said the entrepreneurs. The blowback, they suggested, was generational. Once drivers understand how the app will work, saving time and improving air quality, they’ll come to appreciate Sweetch.
“We’re in a world where information has value and people will pay for it,” Jardaneh asserted on the forum. “This is not about public assets—you’ll still pay the meter or your sticker. Folks, this is happening and the world is changing whether you like it or not!”
Note: Commenters used in this piece were contacted on Next Door and gave permission to use their remarks.