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09.06.17

ParkMeta: Welcome to the Land Grab!
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By UPsafety Team Member:
David Young Jr. of United Public Safety

Being in the parking business always makes me feel a tad out of place at parties. Dinners with friends of friends seem to be perpetually anchored by the age old minutiae of “So, what do you do?” to the hum of the mundane “Oh, I’m a software developer” or “Oh, I’m an accountant”. I always start my introduction a little differently; “Have you gotten a parking ticket in the last year?”

I am the odd man out in these social settings, and, as a shareholder in a forward thinking parking business, things often interest me that make other people cringe. For example, walking in Philadelphia after the aforementioned dinner party last week, I stopped to check the pay to park signs in center city Philadelphia, to see what marketing had been done by the previous pay to park vendor. I wondered how their utilization rates were affected by the placement and marketing verve of the now aging signs, and contemplated the logic of their initial placement.

As a small fish in a very large pond, the practices of larger players in the parking industry are often extremely frustrating, but notably out of reach. Parking is big business and the old guard players and relationships have deep roots. This has manifested itself in a multitude of ways, but the most prominent is a muted, but still obvious stifling of innovation. Also evident is the pace at which the user experience is advancing; much slower than what is currently seen in both the B2B and B2C tech sectors.

A good example, especially pertinent in both the parking technology world and that of consumers, are the many pay to park app’s dotted across the US. Specifically, those that base their marketing on private labeling of their apps.

For example, if I were a salesman and my territory was the Tristate area (Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware) and I wanted to park intercity, I would have to either put change in a meter, pay at a Kiosk, or download multiple pay to park apps. The latter would entail multiple app registrations, multiple emails to check, multiple icons on my home screen, multiple sources of unwanted contact and possibly 2-3 queries to Google maps and the apps themselves trying to decide whether or not I’m in the right town to use the right app. Is this the border? *Checks app 1* eh, maybe this one *Checks app 2*, ah, that’s the one. Maybe if I was in a simpler situation in which my grandmother lived in DE, my job was in NJ and I lived in Philadelphia, I would only have to download three separate apps. Something is wrong here.

There is room in the space to advance quickly; to make this parking data useable, make consumers lives easier and drive technology and the world forward. Instead, we cater to the wills of parking operators, hungry for today’s transaction fees.

This is not the technological apogee for pay to park; in my mind, it is not even in the stratosphere of many B2C companies like Google and Amazon, where driving technology forward coalescences with the best possible evolution of the product for consumers. Instead of principled juggernauts driving a system where technology, the best interests of consumers and municipal concerns are at the core, financially driven pseudo tech companies push products that benefit themselves to the detriment of consumers.

Imagine, if you’ll humor me, a system under which all pay to park apps were aggregated. One single app that you could download, that, whether you were in Boston or San Joaquin, operated just as seamlessly, maintaining an ever updating database of geo fences, delineating the underlying pay to park vendor, and communicating with the incumbent. You travel anywhere in the USA, press one button, and the aggregator app navigates you to the nearest spot. Done. You pay an extra cent on top of the incumbent’s fee for the privilege of not having to download or rummage through multiple apps.

The biggest players in the parking industry understand the final use of pay to park apps, and have done a great job of keeping their presence clandestine; BMW owns ParkMobile and Volkswagen owns PayByPhone. They are making the logical bet that when cars are parking themselves in 10-20 years that owning a database of parking spots and having contracts with the underlying municipalities will be extraordinarily useful, if not entirely necessary to a seamlessly self-parking car. But, until that time, is this what the consumer has to contend with?

When you’re too drunk to get home in 15 years and want your rented autonomous car to park in front of your hotel, how much will you care if the underlying fee is being processed by ParkBoston or MeterUp Philadelphia? You want the car to park itself. The task is so simple that an impassioned response to that question should elicit an almost visceral reaction. “I don’t care! I want the damn car to park!”

Instead, if things play out as they have, with disparate data silos behind every logo, your car will have to reference BMW's best guess at a national database of geo-fenced pay-to-park app user-ship. If the town you happen to be in uses a smaller player? Well, looks like your drunk ass is parking tonight, and it’s the industries fault. We are the perpetrators of this convoluted system.

There is room in the space to advance quickly; to make this parking data useable, make consumers lives easier and drive technology and the world forward. Instead, we cater to the wills of parking operators, hungry for today’s transaction fees.

At UPsafety, we do our best to play Switzerland, and to make our data accessible to anyone that needs it. If we’re going to move the industry forward, interconnectedness and the freedom to access data will be essential. We hope that, if our software and its constant upgrades, support and client satisfaction are as good as we tout, we will be able to lead this change. Our hope is that eventually, the two disparate needs of short term profit and consumer convenience will coalesce. What is best for the constituent will truly become what is best for the municipality. Sadly, that day is not today. In the meantime, we will continue to work vigilantly towards this vision of an interconnected, consumer focused world.