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July 12, 2014 2:45 PM Privatizing public (parking) space

By David Atkins

Should you be able to sell your spot in a public parking space? Believe it or not, that is a question currently plaguing San Francisco:

An Italian company whose mobile app allows San Francisco drivers to get paid for the public parking spaces they exit has temporarily shut down the service following an order from the city attorney. Despite saying last month that it wouldn’t stop, MonkeyParking said in a blog Thursday that it “temporarily disabled” its bidding service in San Francisco, a day before City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s deadline to cease operations or face a possible lawsuit.
“We are currently reviewing our service to clarify our value proposition and avoid any future misunderstandings,” the website said. MonkeyParking CEO Paolo Dobrowolny said in an email Friday that his company was working with lawyers and he hopes to meet with city leaders soon. “We want to operate in full collaboration with the city,” Dobrowolny said.

On one hand this seems like a cross-section of American entrepreneurialism combined with high-tech democratization similar to using Uber or Lyft for transportation, or buying a hot restaurant reservation via smartphone app.

But on the other hand it’s a very personal and physical representation of a disturbing trend toward the privatization of public space. There’s something fundamental about using a public space for free or low cost as long as you need it, then ceding it to the first comer for their own use. That’s the principle of the commons. What happens when you allow people to start becoming mini-grifters, overstaying in public spaces in order to make a quick buck off the next person who can afford to pay their price for public space at the expense of those who cannot?

What happens when those people then hire other people to sit in public spaces and sell them? That’s almost a textbook case of tragedy of the commons combined with rent-seeking abuse by unscrupulous hucksters.

As of now San Francisco is stopping the practice, which is sure to cause howls of protest from libertarian types. But what other choice is there? And isn’t this the perfect encapsulation of why regulation is needed if the public spaces, parking and otherwise, are going to survive?

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