I casually asked a couple of my friends in Seattle -- where street parking is often unavailable, and parking garages vary widely in price -- if they'd ever heard of an app that would let them find the cheapest available parking garage, based on the time they wanted to enter and the time they planned on leaving. (Street parking is usually cheaper if you can find it, but the app would be useful for times that you can't find any.) Most of my friends said that they'd never heard of such an app, but they'd definitely use one if it existed. I also looked up parking apps on Google but the small subset that I randomly tried out, didn't do what I needed. So I thought about writing a "Somebody-with-more-time-than-me-should-go-and-do-this-thing" article, similar to the ride-swapping piece, when one of my friends casually mentioned the BestParking app.
Well, I tried it and it worked. (Lest I be accused of undue favoritism, ParkMe does the same thing just as well, although I didn't find it until later.) In both apps, you bring up a map centered on your current location, or scroll the map to where you plan on looking for parking later. You enter the time that you'll be entering and leaving, and the app shows a map with each parking garage represented by an icon showing the dollar amount that it will cost to park for that time. Without these apps, comparing rates is an annoyingly complex process to do by hand, in a crowded city like Seattle with many garages with different rates (and different times when their "evening rates" kick in -- usually 5 PM, but ranging from 4 to 7 PM), but the apps factor all of that in to give you the cheapest garage for the given time range. You can tap the individual garage icons for more information (if you plan on returning by 11 PM but you're not sure, you'd probably prefer a 24-hour garage instead of one that locks up at midnight). Also, if you're sitting at your computer and you already know the neighborhood where you'll be parking later, you can do the same search on each of their websites. (Although if you are on your phone, please don't do this from a moving car, duh. In Seattle there are plenty of 3-minute spots where you can pull over and do a search.)
So, I've been quite happy with both apps -- but I thought it was interesting that almost none of my friends had ever heard of them. I threw a quick survey up on Amazon's Mechanical Turk website, which I've used before for crowdsourced surveys and other experiments. I polled 50 people, offering them 25 cents apiece to answer these questions:
Would you use these apps? Section A: Parking garage app
Suppose a website and/or smartphone app existed where you could specify a neighborhood of a city, and enter a start and end time for when you wanted to park, and the app would automatically find the cheapest parking garage for that time range (assuming its too hard to find street parking).
1. Are you aware of any such apps/websites that already exist? If yes, whats the name of the app? (No need to do a web search -- only answer "Yes" if you already know of such an app or website.)
2. Would you use such an app/website if it existed? (Or, if youre aware of such an app that already exists, do you use it?)
Yes/No Section B: Spare room rental app
Suppose a website and/or smartphone app existed where you could list a room in your house as a temporary rental, and visitors to your city could rent it out for a single night, or more.
3. Are you aware of any such apps/websites that already exist? If yes, whats the name of the app? (No need to do a web search -- only answer "Yes" if you already know of such an app or website.)
4. Would you use such an app/website if it existed? (Or, if youre aware of such an app that already exists, do you use it?)
The second section, about a spare room rental app, was thrown in as a control in the experiment -- I knew the answer to that question (AirBnB), and I thought a large portion of the survey-takers would too, so I wanted to make sure they weren't just filling out the survey with blow-off answers to get the 25 cents as fast as possible.
Of the 50 people who filled out the survey, 14 of them said they had heard of using AirBnB, Couchsurfing, or Craigslist for the purpose of renting out a room or finding one to rent (almost all of them mentioned AirBnB specifically). But of the same 50 respondents, only two of them mentioned any parking apps that they had heard of, and only one of them mentioned one of the two that I'd found which actually worked. (The other person mentioned an app called ParkWhiz, which, when I tested it out, only displayed one $17 parking garage in a neighborhood where I know of several $5 garages, which BestParking and ParkMe did list correctly.)
This seems to confirm the anecdotal evidence from my survey of my Seattle friends -- there is a great deficiency in awareness of these apps, relative to how useful people would find them if they knew about them.
So how is it that people are finding -- or not finding -- these apps? In a Google search for "parking app", the first result was an ad for ParkWhiz. BestParking and ParkMe did show up in the results, but so did another one called Parker, as well as a Mashable article by Kate Freeman listing "7 City Parking Apps to Save You Time, Money and Gas". Of the apps listed in the article, the only city-specific one that worked in Seattle (PrimoSpot) has been discontinued, and of the non-city-specific ones, only Parker is still around. (The article doesn't even mention BestParking or ParkMe, although I don't know if they existed when it was written.) Finally, a friend in my survey told me about an app called Parkopedia, which has over 100,000 downloads on Google Play (the same as BestParking, and more than ParkMe).
So even if it did occur to you to look for a parking-garage-finding app, the problem is that if you randomly picked one of the five most popular parking apps (BestParking, Parker, ParkMe, Parkopedia, and ParkWhiz), you might accidentally pick one of the three out of five that is a fail:
ParkWhiz, as noted above, only showed one $17 garage in a neighborhood full of other, cheaper garages.
Both ParkMe and Parkopedia display their results as a map with an icon marking each parking garage -- but with no price information. Simply having a map of parking garage locations isn't too useful, since you could get that by searching Google Maps for "parking" anyway. In both apps, you can click on parking garage icons to bring up a window showing their rates, but in Parker most of the listed garages just said "Contact facility for current rates". Parkopedia did usually display the rates for different garages -- but it's a pain to click on each of a dozen parking garage icons looking for the cheapest one. A typical area of downtown Seattle will have one garage where you can park for $5 for the evening, surrounded by garages where parking costs $10 or more, but Parkopedia doesn't make it easy to find it. And neither app lets you specify a start and end time for your parking so that you can find the cheapest garage for that time range.
So it seems odd that according to the Google Play store, Parkopedia has more downloads than ParkMe (100,000+ vs 50,000+), even though ParkMe seems a lot more useful. Meanwhile ParkWhiz, the one that found only one overpriced parking garage in a neighborhood full of cheaper ones, has fewer downloads but a slightly higher star rating in the app store than ParkMe. Of course in my parking-app survey of friends and Mechanical Turk users, the far-and-a-way winner was simply not knowing that any of these apps existed at all.
And here's why it matters to you even if you ride a granola-powered bike to work: I think this is a confirming instance of what I've been arguing for years, that the marketplace for ideas, inventions, and intellectual property is far less efficient than most people think it is. Every day a huge amount of human capital is squandered by people trying to jostle their competitors out of Google search results, or even just trying to raise the capital to advertise their products to people who would find them extremely useful, but will never find out about it if the venture capitalists don't come through with the money to advertise it. All of that is time and effort that could have instead gone towards making the products better.
I've suggested an algorithm based on "random-sample voting" as an antidote to some of these market inefficiencies, such as stopping people from buying votes on Digg, promoting the best ideas on Obama's "We The People" petition website, or even deciding whether J.K. Rowling is the world's greatest author or just lucky. Basically, in each scenario, the competing entities -- whether apps, or songs, or ideas for improving U.S. government policy -- would be rated by a sufficiently large random sample of qualified raters. ("Qualified raters" might mean economists in the case of the White House policy-petition website, or it might mean music consumers in the case of an algorithm to find the best new songs.) Each entity would receive an average rating from those raters, and then the entities with the highest average rating would be the ones promoted to the widest audience (at the top of Google search results, for example). It sounds deceptively simple, but it's far less amenable to "gaming the system", because you can't rope in your friends to vote for your app, or pay voters to rate you highly on Digg. The only way to win in this system is to make your song, idea, or app, the best that it can be -- which means your human capital is being channeled productively, instead of being wasted hiring an SEO company to try and knock your competition out of the top spot on Google.
If competition between parking apps worked this way, then all the current users of Parker, ParkWhiz and Parkopedia, would switch to BestParking and ParkMe, saving themselves a lot of hassle in the process, and those second-rate apps would have never even gotten on the ground unless they got their act together and implemented the same features. More broadly, if competition in the marketplace of ideas worked this way, then there wouldn't be so many users who really wish they could have an app like this, without realizing that the apps exist!
One striking thing about looking at a map of downtown parking garages, is how wildly the rates vary from each other, with $15 garages situated right next to the $5 ones. In theory, in a competitive marketplace, such rates should stabilize around a single price, for goods that are roughly comparable. But the $10 lots do still manage to get some customers who don't know any better, because it's just not practical to criss-cross a grid of several dozen city blocks looking for the cheapest garage. BestParking and ParkMe help people deal with this inefficient marketplace. So it's ironic that they're being held back by a marketplace for ideas that operates just as inefficiently in its own way.