New US parking app upsets homeowners near San Jose State University

  • TECH
  • Friday, 05 Apr 2019

ParkStash is an app for drivers to reserve a private parking space hosted by homeowners and businesses. (Courtesy Google Play/TNS)

He's branded his app "the Airbnb of parking". 

Can't find a place to park? Open ParkStash and rent a private driveway or garage – and in seconds you can get a spot. 

Sameer Saran got the idea for the company – which currently offers spots downtown and around San Jose State University – after he enrolled in an engineering masters programme at the campus, bought a parking permit and still found himself circling for a spot, often for 30 minutes at a time. 

"I've missed classes," said Saran, who graduated last May and has dedicated much of the last couple of years to solving the parking woes he and so many other Bay Area residents know first-hand. 

Saran and his co-founder, Hooman Bolandi, say his company is not just reducing parking hassles but also increasing productivity and reducing traffic and environmental pollution by limiting the amount of time cars spend on the road while drivers hunt for elusive parking spots. 

But not everyone is wild about the idea. Some residents of Naglee Park, a historic neighbourhood east of the university, have raised concerns about security, worrying the business is bringing more unfamiliar cars and people into the area. 

"The security of our families and households depends on our ability to know who is in our neighbourhood," April Halberstadt, a long-time resident of the neighbourhood, wrote in a Naglee Park Yahoo Group. 

"It's not like we're in each other's business all the time," Halberstadt said in a follow-up phone interview, "but it does change our level of security." 

Saran began developing the app in 2017. ParkStash soft launched in 2018 near the SAP Centre and officially opened for business near San Jose State at the start of the 2019 spring semester in January. Now, the number of drivers – mostly students – booking spots through the app is hovering around 50 and only around two dozen people are hosting cars. But the percentage of people who return to the service is high, and the idea is to expand to neighbourhoods near other California State University campuses and traffic-riddled areas, such as malls and Bay Area Rapid Transit stations, soon. 

"It's not a localised problem," Bolandi said. "It's all around." 

But the problem is particularly acute at San Jose State. 

According to Charlie Faas, the university's vice president of administration and finance, about 20,000 people drive to the school, but only around 5,500 parking spots are available at the main campus. There are another 850 or so spots at the school's south campus near Spartan Stadium, but drivers need to take a shuttle downtown. Students who live on campus also can bring their cars to school. 

"There is a need for additional parking solutions near SJSU," Faas said. 

So the school has partnered with Saran and Bolandi, both alumni of the university, by promoting ParkStash at campus parking garages and, crucially, sharing free information about which spaces are open at any given time. 

Second-year forensic chemistry major Sukhmanpreet Kaur, 19, commutes to SJSU from Union City and is one of more than 2,000 people who have used the app. 

"My commute is only 40 minutes, but I would have to leave my home an hour and a half before class in order to leave time to find parking," Kaur said. 

One time, a frustrated driver searching for parking asked if he could give her a ride to her car so he could take her spot. 

"It's really that serious," she said. 

But after Kaur saw a ParkStash flyer posted in one of the school's busiest garages, she downloaded the app and uses it to check how full the garages are and to book a spot elsewhere when she needs to. The app lets her reserve a spot early or book immediately. 

"It seems like they want to fix a problem that's been a really big issue for a long time at their alma mater," Kaur said. 

Still, not everyone is convinced. 

"Criminals could easily use this app to case a home," worried one Naglee Park resident. 

Many years ago, Halberstadt pointed out, San Jose State students used the neighbourhood to park for free. When the neighbourhood turned to permit parking and other measures, the university sued, but Naglee Park won. 

Afterward, Halberstadt said, litter was reduced, fewer pets were killed and fewer plants and decorative items disappeared from yards. 

"It made a major difference," she said. 

Richard Ajluni has lived in Naglee Park for nearly two decades. And while a number of his neighbours, like Halberstadt, think ParkStash is a bad thing for the neighbourhood, he thinks the startup is brilliant. 

"This is the sharing economy; this is Silicon Valley," said Ajluni, who regularly offers spots on the site. "I think it's sort of the same ethos as Uber and Lyft – getting the best yield out of resources in the context of sharing." 

Besides, he said, having a car in his driveway while his family is out, he said, could deter would-be burglars. His driveway has a security camera, and the app tells him the kind of car a driver who books the space has, so he knows who is there. ParkStash, he reasoned, has driver names and contact information, so drivers likely would be deterred from trying anything sketchy. People already illegally sell neighbourhood parking permits to students on Craigslist, he said, drawing in non-residents. And the app allows him to earn an extra US$100 (RM408) or so a month without doing anything more than touching a few buttons on the app. 

Parkstash recommends a pricing structure – US$2 (RM8) per hour, US$25 (RM102) per week or US$60 (RM245) per month near San Jose State – but hosts are free to set their own fees, and they can specify exactly when their spot is available. 

Pricing can be adjusted depending on the location, and in the future, Saran said, the company could add surge pricing. Users can create a help ticket from within the app, and if a resident returns home to find a car that should have moved still in their spot, they can have it towed at the driver's expense. 

The company isn't profitable yet, but Saran and Bolandi, who are bootstrapping the operation themselves right now and recruiting hosts themselves by going door to door, hope to break even within a couple of years. Now, they tack an 8% service charge on for drivers and collect 20% of what hosts make using Stripe, the payment processing system also used by Airbnb and other tech companies. 

Mostly, Saran and Bolandi said, ParkStash is an attempt to help people get where they're going faster and to limit anxiety around being late to a test or a meeting – along with carbon emissions and wear and tear on roads. 

"It's about," Bolandi said, "productivity." – The San Jose Mercury News/Tribune News Service

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