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Flap over Haystack reflects broader angst about parking

Parking spaces are a hot commodity in many Boston neighborhoods, and the makers of a new smartphone app called Haystack see an opportunity. Haystack users receive a notification when someone else in the network is about to leave a parking space. The driver looking for a spot can then pay $3 to reserve the space. The other driver gets $2.25, and Haystack gets 75 cents. It’s a product that could well bring out the worst in people.

Yet Haystack is mostly a symptom of a deeper problem: The number of people who want to park along the street in Boston far exceeds the number of curbside spaces available. What the city needs is a broader conversation about how it manages street parking — a conversation that’s less about Haystack than about all the policies that discourage the turnover of existing spaces .

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Mayor Walsh has signaled to Haystack that it’s unwelcome, but whether the city has any legal authority to keep it out is an open question; Haystack insists it merely allows people to pay for information about the location of open spots. The city has hinted at one legitimate concern: The app may encourage parking-spot trolls. Much like fairy-tale creatures who lurk under bridges and extort money out of hapless passersby, Haystack users with time on their hands could hog parking spaces until bribed to move along.

Then again, that’s only possible because existing policies — which predate Zipcar, Hubway, real-time bus and subway data, and other innovations that make it easier to live car-free — price curbside parking spaces so cheaply that it’s no surprise they’re almost always full. Urban planning expert Donald Shoup argues that parking should be priced high enough so that about 15 percent of spaces are unoccupied at any given time. Currently, resident parking stickers are available for free for all qualified car owners in a given neighborhood; as a result, even some residents who seldom drive have cars that they park at curbside for days on end. Meanwhile, metered spots only cost $1.25 an hour, which means that for many visitors driving is less expensive than taking public transportation. Driving Haystack out of town won’t change these dynamics.

Boston isn’t the first city to confront these problems, and should look elsewhere for solutions. Starting in 2011, San Francisco began experimenting with a pilot program called SFpark, which adjusts the price charged by parking meters to meet demand, encouraging drivers to leave their cars at home or to find parking in less congested parts of the city. The program has dramatically increased the number of available parking spaces in areas where it has been implemented. Perhaps Boston could try a similar program — which would allow the city, not Haystack and its users, to claim additional revenues. City Hall should also look at increasing the price of resident parking stickers. Washington, D.C., charges residents around $35 for a yearly permit, while nonresidents, such as students and members of Congress, have to pay more. This is offset by a large number of open spaces, mostly located outside of busy commercial areas, which anyone can use.

Even as it rebuked Haystack, City Hall noted that is working on some new parking technologies of its own. But those may not address the underlying shortage. If nothing else, though, the arrival of Haystack — and, likely, similar apps in the future — forces Boston to confront the simmering tensions around parking in the city, and the seemingly innocuous policies that foster them.

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