The creative destruction that gives our economy its relentless churn results in millions of new products each year, some flourishing, others fizzling – and with the wrecking ball of consumer dissatisfaction about to hit inefficient parking systems for many well-documented reasons, apps have burst forth. These range from ParkMe (which helps users identify the cheapest parking in their area) to SpotSwitch, the Android app OpenSpot and iPhone’s TakeMySpot, all of which do what local governments can’t or won’t do – create markets for parking spots, help motorists find open ones, and make sure consumers have all the information they need to make informed choices. (Full disclosure: We’ve guest-blogged with ParkMe on occasion.)
This week, CNET ran a story on a new parking app, CurbTXT, which aims to smooth out another troublesome aspect of car ownership. CurbTXT (currently only available in San Francisco) provides users with a coded sticker that allows people who walk by the car to text parking tips to users. These can range from “I just found your car in a ditch – you OK?” to “Your lights are on and you’re blocking my driveway. Jerk.”
We see a few problems with this approach. First of all, until the app becomes well known enough that seeing the symbol acts as a reliable prompt, the stickers are likely to gather dust in a corner of their bearers’ rear windows, slowly baking in the sun. This presents an interesting set of marketing problems – CurbTXT has to establish itself in a big way before it’ll be an effective tool, but how to do that when it creates immediate benefits for the car owner, and not the people to whom the stickers are a call-to-action?
Second, while we don’t want to be cynical about Homo Californicus’s capacity for altruism, we’re not entirely sure that the volunteer spirit necessarily extends to helping other people not wear their battery down or not get fines. Bad parking isn’t a problem like world hunger or homelessness – it’s an interpersonal faux pas. We’d suggest that passersby are less likely to text the car owner if they aren’t directly impacted, and while we don’t have anything to back this up, someone likely to be concerned enough about their parking to use the app is probably more attentive to the rules than your average motorist; if we’re right, that leaves CurbTXT a product looking for a niche.
Finally, and this is the really sticky issue, parking fines act as a transfer payment from car owners to local municipalities, and while love may be free in San Francisco, breaking the rules when you park your car is far from it. Andrew Lam of HuffPo has identified SF’s fines as a particularly cruel and regressive form of revenue generation; in 2012, the city was reportedly expected to generate as much as $112 million in traffic fines. San Francisco does make some use of market pricing, which ups revenues while also making parking more efficient; at the same time, although it’s tricky to collate definitive data on the subject, San Francisco has the highest fines we’ve been able to locate in the United States.
Besides acting as deterrents, even the occasional infraction means big money for a cash-strapped major city, and helping your neighbor avoid a fine means depriving local government of a much-needed revenue stream. Put another way, would you rather be nice to your neighbor by reminding her to park closer to the curb, or would you rather be nice to your city by letting your neighbor to make a large donation to its coffers? It’s a tough call. That money has to come from somewhere.
Look, the car owners among us certainly hope it works. It’s always possible that a savvy marketing team will get San Franciscans will taking to CurbTXT like ducks to water. But we wouldn’t bet on it. The forging of the new parking paradigm is ongoing, perhaps with mobile apps playing a key role – but we’d want a better way to ensure buy-in than a “build it and they will come” approach. Self-interest seems more powerful than a desire to fix other people’s screw-ups, especially ones that can be annoying but rarely disastrous.