Free parking in the sharing economy

Parking at SFO’s long-term lot costs $18 per day. For a weeklong trip, that’s $126. And from where I live, round-trip cab fare can be even higher. A common technique is to park at the nearby BART station for only $2 per day, but then you’re subject to the train schedule, which adds a bit of complexity and you need to carry your luggage through a train station in addition to an airport. I recently tried another option.

FlightCar is a way to get free airport parking. You simply let FlightCar know when you’ll be traveling, drop off your car with them, and pick it up from them with no fee when you return. In exchange for you not having to pay for parking, FlightCar may rent out your car while you’re gone. Whether your car is rented or not, you don’t have to pay for parking. And yes, they take care of insurance, cleaning your car, etc.

Here’s how my experience was:
I listed my car ahead of time. It was a very easy signup process and only required some basic information about my car. As per their instructions, on the day of departure I called them when I was about 15 minutes away from the airport. I had an early flight, so this happened to be at 4:12 AM. I was told to drive to the Millbrae BART station, which an earlier email had indicated would be the likely meeting point. The person on the phone was very helpful, giving me exact directions to the station and letting me know how to identify who I was supposed to meet. At the station, I met one of their valets, who walked around the car with me, noting any existing scratches, and having me sign the paperwork. This only took a couple of minutes. We both got back in the car, and I drove him to the terminal, where I got out and handed over the key. And that was it until I returned.

A week later, after retrieving my bag, I called FlightCar to let them know that I was back. I told them that I was on the arrivals level and which door number I was standing outside of. They also asked me what color jacket I was wearing, and then told me to wait for a black Town Car. Less than 10 minutes later, a black car picked me up and took me to a parking lot in Millbrae. Until this point, everything had gone smoothly and as promised. When we arrived at the parking lot, it was dark and raining, and just a bit eery sitting in a black car facing my own car waiting at the other end of the lot. The lot wasn’t lit, and there was no signage identifying it as a business. An attendant with a flashlight approached the car, and took me over to mine with a flashlight. He mentioned something about a generator being off, which is why it was so dark. He had me sign another piece of paper, said that he didn’t think the car had been rented out, and turned on the car to check the mileage. At this point the radio turned on at a high volume, with the station set to hip hop, and the mileage was higher than I had remembered. The gas level was about the same. To his credit, the attendant reacted quickly, turning off the radio, and noting that the odometer was reading about 500 miles higher than it was when I had dropped off the car. He then called his boss to find out what had happened. He quickly learned that my car had in fact been rented out, and let me know that I would be receiving a check in the mail for $70. I entered my address on his phone and was on my way. One additional issue that I noticed later was that my insurance card was missing from the glove compartment. I think they remove it and replace it with a FlightCar card during the rental, but they must have forgotten to put it back. This wasn’t a huge deal though as I was able to print a new one.

A few days later, as promised I received a check signed by the CEO and cofounder. And then about a week later, I received a reply to an email I had sent to FlightCar containing my feedback. The CTO and cofounder explained what they had done to address it. They’ve made sure that they always have gas for the generator, so the lot should never be dark, and they’ve added signage to make it clear that it’s the FlightCar lot. He also gave some background on the confusion about my car being rented. They used to send the driver an email if their car was rented, but due to abuse of the system by car owners seeking free parking without renting out their cars, they’ve stopped sending those emails, at least for now. As for my missing insurance card, he was going to make sure the valet on duty understands the correct procedure. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the great things about trying a startup is that while there are often kinks, they tend to be very responsive to feedback as early customers help them with feedback.

Overall, I found the service to be convenient, and it’s pretty hard to beat the price of -$70. I’ll admit that I was pretty thrown by learning at the last minute that my car had been rented out, and for the first few minutes of driving back to my apartment, I thought that I wouldn’t use the service again—not because they had failed me in some way, but because I was a little weirded out by the fact that someone else had been using my car, and I had no idea how carefully they had driven it. I was also a little annoyed by the inconvenience of having to take all of the items out of my car before dropping it off and then replacing them later. As some time has passed, though, I’m more inclined to try it again. Someone renting a car is most likely not going to do anything crazy with it, as they’d risk getting a traffic ticket or damaging the car, and having to deal with all of the consequences of that. It’s not really a big deal for me to carry a few personal items in and out of my car. And, it is pretty silly to pay so much for parking.

When I mentioned this service to Dan, he handed me his copy of The Economist, which had a cover article on the sharing economy. The article points out an exciting trend that’s going on where people are able to make some money by sharing what they have, without all of the overhead of advertising, insurance, billing, and other administrative costs that would have made the process too expensive or complicated in the past, and renters are able to get access to products and services that they may not have been able to afford in the past. There are plenty of examples. RelayRides and Getaround let you rent out your car or rent someone else’s. I’m looking forward to finding an excuse to rent a Model S someday. For those who don’t want to rent out or rent a car, Lyft, SideCar, and Tickengo facilitate the sharing of rides. Now I understand what all of those pink mustaches were about that I saw in San Francisco on Tuesday. 🙂 LendingClub facilitates loans to and from its members, and I know someone who has made very good returns from the service. TaskRabbit is used by people who need help with small jobs, and those who are seeking to help. Wal-Mart is apparently considering paying in-store customers to provide same-day delivery service to online customers. (By the way, Google is testing same-day delivery in the San Francisco Bay Area, so sign up if you’d like to try it for free during testing.) Beyond sharing of relatively everyday items, there are even more premium services like BlackJet which allows those who are well-off, but not quite so well off that they can afford to purchase or charter a jet, to purchase an individual seat on a private jet flight. Or, as an example of something on the more affordable side, Fancy Hands provides personal assistant services to those who need some extra help, but don’t need to hire a full-time assistant.

I love innovation. These services are opening up opportunities to customers, property owners, and service providers that they may not have had otherwise, expanding the market. I understand that innovation can mean uncomfortable disruption, but incumbents should play to their strengths rather than protecting their business (and not consumers) via regulators. For example, I’m inclined to avoid taxis because of their unpredictability. While I’ve had plenty of perfectly fine experiences as a rider, I’ve also had drivers who drive aggressively, don’t know where they are going, talk loudly on the phone the entire time, refuse to take me to my destination, generally seem annoyed or even angry that I would get into their car, and of course insist on cash payment. I don’t have to worry about that with Uber, plus Uber provides the added benefit of a nicer vehicle. So why don’t taxi services learn from their competitors and play to their strengths? They have a large fleet of cars. Their drivers, in general, have a good knowledge of the areas they serve. To make me happy, all they’d need to do is get reliable mobile apps, provide a reputation/rating system for their drivers (and perhaps for passengers as well, if they’d like), have a GPS unit (or any smartphone) on standby, and accept credit card fees as part of the cost of doing business. It doesn’t have to be the 5% fee that one cab driver’s sign recently claimed.

One interesting point that’s made in the article (watch the video for more context) is that while I may have felt a little weird about the FlightCar experience on my first try, my trust for this kind of service may increase over time, just as people don’t even blink before giving their credit card number to an online store today. We’re partially through this initial trust issue with cloud computing, where users are starting to understand that professionals who run data centers are probably better at protection and reliability than a local solution. Or, as one of my favorite analogies goes, I feel safer keeping my money in a bank than under my mattress.

For a look into the future of how an economy of part-time labor could work, check out this TEDTalk by Wingham Rowan.

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