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Innovation Economy

Tests find parking apps still aren’t that useful

Testing Haystack the day it launched, the writer on his own found a prime parking space in Harvard Square and listed it on the app but got no buyers. He also tried without success to use the app to buy another space in the square.

SCOTT KIRSNER FOR THE GLOBE

Testing Haystack the day it launched, the writer on his own found a prime parking space in Harvard Square and listed it on the app but got no buyers. He also tried without success to use the app to buy another space in the square.

I’m an optimist, and so despite almost 15 years of searching for parking, getting ticketed, and being towed in Boston, I still believe that something will eventually mitigate the misery.

Several new mobile apps promise to do that. So I loaded them on my iPhone this month and set out in search of parking.

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Since the early days of smartphones, entrepreneurs have tried to use them to reduce the time and frustration of finding a parking spot. Nothing has yet taken off. Part of the reason is parking spots vanish faster than sorbet on a 90-degree day.

I began with the most controversial of the apps, Haystack, developed by a Baltimore entrepreneur. Haystack is a digital marketplace that lets you offer to sell a street parking space before you leave it, or buy a space from someone else.

You can let Haystack suggest a price, typically about $5, or set your own. That raises the possibility of parking scalping: A great street spot near Fenway could earn you $30 or $40 if you’re willing to spend the time hunting it down. (Haystack takes a 25 percent fee, and passes the rest to the seller.)

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh has voiced his opposition, saying Haystack and individual drivers shouldn’t profit from a public resource. That was a publicity boon to the small company, which is trying to position itself as an Uber-style “disruptor” aiming to make urban life easier.

On the evening that Haystack launched this month, I headed to Harvard Square and found a roomy spot for my Subaru SUV right on JFK Street. I put a few quarters in the meter, and with that, the spot was legal parking until 8 the next morning. I suddenly felt like the owner of waterfront property on the Vineyard.

Despite listing the spot on Haystack for over an hour, there were no buyers. As I left, I tried to use the app to buy another parking spot in the square. It told me to look for a Land Rover, but I couldn’t find it, and the driver didn’t respond to my messages. When I canceled the purchase to head home, the app charged me $5 (after I e-mailed the company, it quickly refunded the money).

I didn’t have better luck on Newbury Street, in Fort Point Channel, or in Kendall Square. I kept my spots listed for more than an hour while I ate lunch or worked on my laptop in a cafe — longer than what I imagine would be a typical scenario, say, listing a spot as you finish dessert at a restaurant.

When I used the app to look for spots to buy, it typically came up empty. The mayor doesn’t have much to worry about, unless Haystack gets more people using its app.

I tried Parker next. The app’s maker partnered with the city last year to install sensors underneath 330 parking spaces in Fort Point Channel and the Seaport that can inform the app when a space is vacant.

I made a loop through the neighborhood, but didn’t see spots where the app said they should have been. One issue was that some spots Parker identified as available were cordoned off for a movie crew; others may have been snapped up before I arrived. The two spots I found, I found the old-fashioned way: by looking for cars with their brake lights on.

The first time I tried SpotHero, an app that guides you to parking lots and garages (sometimes at a discount to the posted price), I drove through the MIT campus. The app suggested a garage on the other side of the river, near Berklee College of Music. Not very helpful.

A Boston startup has released the beta version of an app called Spot, which will officially launch soon. It focuses on renting private spots in alleys, driveways, and garages, from an hour to a month. First, I listed my Brookline driveway at $1.50 an hour, snapping a photo and uploading it to help parkers find the right place. Then, I used the app to rent a space for two hours in a Back Bay alley, at $10.

But after about 10 minutes of hunting, I couldn’t find an empty space resembling the photo the app was showing me. I grabbed a metered spot instead. When I went back to the alley on foot, I located the space — but a Toyota Camry was in it. The app’s phone support was good, and my $10 got refunded, but the experience was frustrating. I also was late for my haircut appointment. (The next day, things improved when someone rented my driveway for five hours; I earned $6.37.)

Wednesday night, I drove to the North End, perhaps the toughest neighborhood for parking. Haystack told me a spot was available near TD Garden for $7. I bought it, but a minute later, the seller canceled the transaction.

Parker pointed out garages but had no price information. Spot had no private spots available. SpotHero suggested an underground garage at Battery Wharf for $20; the garage’s website said the normal price was $25. Such a deal — except I drove past a free spot on Hanover Street so I could investigate the app. Insanity? Yes.

These apps may get more useful over time. I especially like Spot’s approach of filling private spaces that would otherwise sit empty. But for now, the best parking app is still a friend in the passenger seat with an eagle-eye — and willingness to hop out and save the space as you circle the block.

The hunt for parking

Several free mobile apps promise to make it easier to park in and around Boston. All are available for iPhone or Android, and all wisely suggest not using them while driving.

Haystack

App enables you to buy and sell metered or permitted street spots when you are ready to leave them. You can either let the app set the price (typically about $5; the company pockets 25 percent), or set your own. Usage has been light in the app’s first week of operation in Boston.

Parker

In Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline, app helps you find both garages and lots. It also can guide you to about 330 metered spots in the Seaport/Innovation District — if they’re still available when you arrive.

SpotHero

Find spaces, some at a discount, in parking garages and lots. Pay with a credit card, and either print out the e-mailed confirmation or show your screen when you exit.

Spot

Earn money by renting out your own private parking space (like a driveway or garage spot) by the hour, day, week, or month. Drivers can also use a map and photos to find spaces available for rent.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.
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