One of the worst things about owning a car in New York City—besides driving a car in New York City—is parking. It is extortionately expensive. It is often inconveniently located. And it adds an additional layer of time and energy to transactions that are already time and energy sensitive, like fleeing the city before a holiday weekend rush hour, arriving at a concert before the menacing crush, or making that stop at Payard en route to your suburban in-laws for a tense holiday dinner. These are among the many reasons why New Yorkers have the lowest rates of car ownership in the entire country. (Our incredible public transportation infrastructure helps.)
Now, a new app called DropCar is attempting to take some of the pain out of parking, eliminating the inconveniences and diminishing the price, by, somewhat counter-intuitively, removing the burden of proximity.
“Where cars are headed, where cities are headed in terms of urban planning,” says DropCar cofounder and CEO Spencer Richardson, “is toward the fact that cities don’t want garages and repair centers and gas stations in their center anymore. It’s going to be about aggregating the vehicles, the stores, and the service centers outside the cities, away from pedestrians, away from the traffic of the urban core.”
DropCar’s formula for abiding this impending sea change is relatively simple: Collect and concentrate the cars in a more affordable off-site location when they’re not in use. (A lot in The Bronx by the old Yankee Stadium is the company’s current locale.) Plan for and staff-up around the kind of scheduled occasions for which New Yorkers usually utilize their vehicles (weekend getaways, irregular business or personal appointments, holidays). And, most important, bring the vehicle directly to consumers and retrieve it from them after use via a team of 150 courteous and well-trained valets.
“When you centralize operations around core facilities, you know the traffic time, you have people constantly on staff at the garages—it’s easier to model the data, and you’re able to synthesize that information into more reliable patterns,” Richardson says.
This means that every time you request a DropCar valet to bring or retrieve your car from any location in Manhattan (as well as Kennedy and LaGuardia airports), as I did a dozen times during my trial of the $349 monthly “Steve” service, he or she will text you an estimated arrival time, show up early, greet you graciously by name, exchange a secret app-provided code to ensure identity, and then disappear with your car, sending proof-of-life shots once it’s sequestered in the garage uptown.
Or not. Another service offered by the app, “Will,” allows you to hire a valet (at $15/hour) to drive your car to, or meet you at, a specific location—say, a lunch with your niece at Barnard, or a day of shopping at Macy’s during the Christmas rush if you’re a real glutton for punishment—and sit with your car while you deal with said errands and entanglements. This service seems less organized around residents, and more for day-trippers into the City, but it’s another stress reliever made simple.
Though New York is the biggest parking market in the country, servicing the app’s 5,000 parking customers currently accounts for only about three-quarters of DropCar’s business. (At present, the service is only available in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island City, but cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., and even some international destinations, may be on the horizon.) The other twenty-five percent derives from providing (or nudging) services and logistics for repair shops and car dealerships.
“Let’s say you’ve got a Mercedes and it needs to come in for maintenance,” Richardson says. “We’ll send our driver to come pick it up from your office, we’ll bring it to the service center, then we bring it back to you.” DropCar receives a commission from the service center, and perhaps a fee from the consumer for moving the car. I think that’s called a win-win.
But in actuality, all of this business is simply a placeholder for the app’s true calling, which will likely come into play at some point in the near future when our nation’s cars begin driving themselves. “That’s the time where this trend in urban planning will take off to eliminate vehicle support structure inside city walls,” Richardson says. “Yet you’re still going to need to put the car somewhere when it isn’t being used. And because cars will be shared more often,” being driven more than the two or three hours a day a personally owned vehicle is currently used, perhaps as much as twenty-four hours a day, “they’re going to increase their service cycle—they’ll be pushed harder and harder, so they’ll need additional service.”
Richardson’s plan is for DropCar to insert itself into this shifting paradigm. With their proprietary software, detailed knowledge of transportation infrastructure, physical reserves of space outside the dense urban center, and understanding of consumer needs and timing, the company’s hope is to act as the support system for the autonomous car.
“We want to become part of the smart grid that these cars run on, and we also provide the necessary infrastructure in their downtime,” Richardson says. “That represents a growing market for us in terms of 360-degree usage, and beyond simple storage.”