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Boston City Council poised to ban Haystack parking app

Haystack allows the driver of a car parked in a public parking space to notify other app users that he is about to leave.

David L. Ryan/Globe staff

Haystack allows the driver of a car parked in a public parking space to notify other app users that he is about to leave.

The Boston City Council appears poised to ban a new mobile parking app, which lets users sell access to public spaces, after grilling the service’s founder at a hearing Wednesday.

The council’s Committee on Government Operations heard testimony on a proposed ordinance that would explicitly prohibit the selling, leasing, or reserving of public ways for private gain, with the full council expected to vote on it next Wednesday.

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The entrepreneur who invented the parking app, Eric Meyer, did not find a sympathetic ear at the sessions Wednesday, with five city councilors contending that his company, Haystack, could restrict access to public parking and even spark violent altercations. The councilors left little doubt they would support banning Haystack, and one member predicted the ordinance will be approved by the full City Council next week.

At stake is the right of Baltimore-based Haystack to operate in Boston, where it launched in July. Haystack allows the driver of a car parked in a public parking space to notify other app users that he is about to leave. A nearby motorist can claim the spot for a fee. Most transactions cost $3, but rates can climb as high as $15. Haystack keeps a quarter of the fee and the rest goes to the driver who gave up the parking space.

Even before Haystack began service in Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he was concerned about the company’s business model but did not move to halt operations before the council considered a new ordinance.

On Wednesday, District City Councilor Matt O’Malley of Jamaica Plain urged Meyer to suspend operations in Boston immediately. Another councilor, Timothy McCarthy of Hyde Park, scolded the 24-year-old entrepreneur for characterizing Haystack as a public service that merely shares information — rather than sells city property — and will help ease Boston’s parking crunch.

“This is not about information sharing; this is about cash,” McCarthy said. “So when you talk about God’s work and helping the city address its parking problems, put that to rest.”

Meyer countered that city officials have been too quick to judge his app, which he said has about 5,000 users in Boston. Banning Haystack would send a message that the city is unwelcoming to new ideas, he argued.

“A vote in support of this proposed ordinance and this time is a vote against technology, against innovation,” Meyer said.

Meyer compared Haystack to the car-sharing service Zipcar, which he said is “a private company whose business model monopolizes hundreds of coveted city parking spots and gives them to individuals willing to pay fees to access them.” In Baltimore, he said, Zipcar has exclusive access to 149 public spaces.

But the Baltimore Parking Authority told the Globe Zipcar has 102 spaces reserved and pays the city $40 per space each month. In Boston, Zipcar does not have any reserved public spaces.

District Councilor Frank Baker of Dorchester, who sponsored the ban, said city officials would gladly embrace a high-tech solution to Boston’s parking challenges if it did not involve money changing hands over public property.

“You’re trying to make us out to be anti-innovation,” Baker said. “If it’s a good idea, and it’s not infringing on something the city owns, we’re all in. But I just have a hard time with trading city spaces that aren’t yours.”

Bernard O’Rourke, superintendent of the Boston Police Department’s Bureau of Field Services, testified that Haystack poses a potential problem for law enforcement.

“We’re worried about the potential for some abuse, which could lead to an altercation,” he said. “It’s definitely going to happen, and we’re going to have an incident on our hands where police are going to have to get involved.”

In four weeks of operations, Meyer said, there have been no altercations, and his company has received no complaints about Haystack users blocking non-users from parking spaces.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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