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Parking app drives into city's garages

Technology helps drivers find cheapest spot for their vehicles


by: COURTESY OF BESTPARKING.COM - A screenshot shows the bestparking.com selection of garages and parking lots in Portland. The app helps drivers find the best parking prices in the city. Many local garages do not post their prices where drivers can see them before turning in to park.Next time you’re planning on driving downtown and looking for a parking space where you know you won’t get ripped off, you might want to first look at bestparking.com, says Ben Sann, founder of the website.

Otherwise, let the buyer beware, says Sann, whose secret shopper, or rather, secret parker, has found plenty of bad deals at Portland parking lots and garages.

Some of those bad deals are the result of garage owners posting misleading parking rates, according to Sann. A few don’t even let you know the hourly parking rate until you’re checking out. Some parking lot signs here advertise an inexpensive all-day rate, but don’t tell drivers their hourly rate is more than three times the hourly rate at a lot a block away.

“It’s one of the reasons our site exists,” Sann says. “Not just because of the signage situation, but because, what does an all-day rate mean? Oftentimes with signage it’s not clear. When you know the price ahead of time you can find the best deal and pull into the lot that suits you best.”

Sann knows all this, though he is based in New York City, because three times a year he has drivers visit every parking facility in Portland, taking photos of signs that list prices and comparing them against the actual prices his secret parkers pay. Considering bestparking.com provides its parking search engine for 105 cities, that’s a lot of ground to cover.

Adam Bolz was the Portland rate surveyor in May, when the most recent survey was taken of local garages. Bolz says he’s noticed that PMC garages here are especially hard to survey. “They don’t have the clearest rates, and, personally, I don’t think they’re ethical, at least not when it comes to transparency on their prices,” he says.

One to watch out for has an entrance on Southwest Third Avenue between Yamhill and Taylor Streets, which more than a few drivers have mistakenly thought was the back entrance to the Pioneer Place Smart Park garage, which actually has an entrance on Southwest Fourth Avenue. The hourly rate for those entering on Third isn’t posted anywhere a driver could see it on the way in. The Smart Park on Third has an hourly rate of $1.60. The PMC-run garage on Fourth costs $5 an hour. Same building.

Portland Bureau of Transportation officials say they’ve heard complaints from drivers who thought they were entering the inexpensive Pioneer Place Smart Park garage when they entered the PMC garage.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - It can be hard to figure out exactly what the price would be for parking in this PMC garage on Southwest Third Avenue. especially since the same buildings entrance on Fourth Avenue features Smart Park $1.60 an hour parking. This entrance? $5 an hour.

‘Once you’re in, you’re in’

In fact, many underground garages in downtown Portland require drivers to head down long curving ramps before they offer anything resembling signs with rate information. Bolz says that’s not unusual, nor are “teaser rates” posted outside which have little to do with the real hourly rate drivers find once they hit the spot where they can grab a ticket.

Bolz says he’s also seen Portland lots that advertise an inexpensive all-day rate that is never available. Still, he offers Portland drivers a little solace.

“In many cities it’s a lot worse than what you see here,” he says.

Bolz has mostly praise for the city-owned Smart Park garages, which have clear signage drivers can usually peruse before they turn in off the street.

Vancouver, B.C.-based Impark owns the PMC garage on Southwest Third Avenue, and Senior Vice President for Corporate Development Julian Jones says there is a rate sign there. He’s right, but it isn’t visible to drivers on the street or even as they pull up to go through the parking gate. The sign is knee-high just beyond the gate — out of sight to drivers.

Jones says his company’s policy is to not display all rates at the entrance anyway. “It could slow traffic as people read the fine print,” he says.

It makes sense for the expensive downtown garages to not make their hourly prices visible, says Caroline Weber, a University of Oregon economist. According to Weber, studies have shown that people will pay more for goods and services as long as price differentials aren’t too in their faces. Everybody in California knows there’s a sales tax, Weber says, but when grocery stores there, in an experiment, agreed to post prices that included the sales tax, customers stopped buying as much.

“If you don’t post the tax, they might know it, but they might not think much about it,” Weber says. Similarly, according to Weber, if people don’t see a posted price as they head into a parking garage, they might guess that the hourly rate is high, but they’ll likely head in anyway.

Most Portland garages allow drivers to circle around and head out in a 15-minute grace period if they discover the rate is not to their liking. Weber says she doubts many do. “How many people are going to back out?” she says. “I would guess once you’re in, you’re in.”

So garages with high prices are better off not making their rates too visible, Weber says. That’s perfectly legal in Portland, though some cities have regulations requiring readable signs with posted rates. Interestingly, Weber says she can’t think of any other product or service people purchase without knowing the price ahead of time.

Bestparking.com, which also is available as a smartphone app, also provides a fun way to compare the price of parking in various cities. Park Avenue and 48th Street in New York? A cool $26 an hour. Sutter and Taylor Street garage in San Francisco? Just under $11 an hour. Maybe $5 an hour in Portland isn’t so bad after all.