Still paying full retail for downtown parking? The car next to you might be getting a better deal

Government Center Garage.
Government Center Garage. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Phone app SpotHero displayed parking garages with available space in downtown Boston.
Phone app SpotHero displayed parking garages with available space in downtown Boston.Bill Greene/Globe staff

In a sane world, paying $22 to park for an afternoon shouldn’t be considered a steal. Then again, this is Boston, where a State Street garage charges $28 for an hour — itself an insult — and hikes the rate to $42 if you stay for an hour and one minute.

Enjoy your time in Boston!

So when Carol Brooks Ball, a digital media consultant from Topsfield, scored a $22 spot for five hours by using a parking app — a price $17 cheaper than the garage’s drive-in rate — she started to worry.

“I thought the parking attendant was going to say, ‘Lady, you’ve been scammed,’ ” she said.


Parking in Boston has long favored garage and lot owners. But now online parking apps are giving a bit more power to the little guy.

While the parking spots may look the same, the parking business is undergoing seismic changes as app companies battle behind the scenes to lock up spaces in garages and strike marketing deals with professional sports teams or event venues.

Once the most mundane of things, parking is now attracting big venture capital money and data scientists. There may come a day when driving into town and looking for a spot — as in physically, with your eyes — will seem as old-fashioned as searching for a plumber in the Yellow Pages.

SpotHero, ParkWhiz, and other apps empower consumers by allowing them to comparison shop garages on their phones or computers. That’s right, no more desperately circling the block, hoping to find a metered spot on the street, but of course ending up in a garage, the stress building as the clock ticks toward the start of the job interview or the Big Apple Circus, the kids whining in the back.

At least that’s the promise.

The apps let people reserve and pay for off-street parking in advance, and they regularly offer deals, too, sometimes significant. App companies have a bargaining advantage with some garages right now, as Uber and Lyft have given consumers an alternative to driving into town and parking.


Most apps work with commercial garages and lots. But at least one app, Spot, operates in part like an Airbnb for cars, making it easy for individuals to rent out an unused space.

Note to out-of-towners: The deals below, for a three-hour window during a recent weekday afternoon, might not seem so great, but in Boston, these are I’ve-hit-the-lottery numbers.

75 State Street Garage: ParkWhiz price, $30. Standard drive-up price, $42.

Rowes Wharf Garage: SpotHero price, $11. Standard drive-up price, $40.

Government Center Garage: ParkWhiz price, $20. Standard drive-up price, $39.

Back Bay Garage: SpotHero price, $21. Standard drive-in price, $42.

The apps typically take a 15 percent cut, which the garages don’t like, but they bring needed exposure and customers.

It’s a mixed blessing that explains why parking industry veteran Rick West calls the garage owners and the app companies “frenemies.”

Until fairly recently, parking was the industry that technology forgot. It remained a largely cash business with no big data analytics applied to squeeze every dollar out of every space.

But over the past five years, venture capital firms have invested about $261 million in parking app companies, according to Pitchbook, a financial data and software company.

Along the way, parking has turned into a “consumer-facing industry when historically it wasn’t,” said West. In the past, he said, “you drove to a destination and looked for a parking sign. Now parking is the destination. You’ve decided in advance where you’re going to park.”


How trendy is parking? In the industry, it’s no longer even called “parking,” according to Bob Youakim CEO of Passport, a mobile-pay parking technology firm. As it becomes part of the friction-free Uber-style world, it’s going with a more aspirational name: “mobility.”

Transforming “parking” into “mobility” sounds like a marketing gimmick — like KFC dropping the “fried.” But when you talk to enough industry players, you understand that letting people reserve spots ahead of time, or pointing them to areas where on-street parking is likely available, will drive mobility by reducing the number of cars circling in search of parking. One study in SoHo in New York City found that 28 percent of cars on the road were cruising for metered parking.

Most of the apps focus on off-street parking, but a pilot program in Chicago is trying to improve the on-street parking experience via app by predicting the likelihood of finding on-street parking in a particular neighborhood at a specified time and date.

ParkChicagoMap uses an algorithm that makes predictions based on historical and real-time parking data (culled from smart parking meters); local events, such as concerts or sporting events; weather conditions; road closures; and construction.

The likelihood of finding a space is expressed in traffic terms: red, yellow, or green, and can help drivers decide whether circling and looking for a spot — or even driving into town — is worth it.


Meanwhile, even as millions of dollars in venture capital money flow to the app companies, the little guy can make a buck, too, or do his part to reduce congestion.

In the Back Bay, Cornelius Hurley, a professor at Boston University School of Law, uses the SPOT app to rent a space he owns behind his condo. Charging $3.50 per hour, he and his wife have earned a couple of thousand dollars over the past two years. He’s also become friendly with two renters, and, as an environmentally conscious person, he’s had the satisfaction of knowing he’s taking at least one circling car off the street — all with very little risk and effort, he noted.

“No one is going to trash the spot, and you don’t have to leave a bottle of wine to curry favor.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com.