The city needs Haystack — or something like it

Amy Coon looked through her purse in order to feed the meter after parking in the Financial District.
Amy Coon looked through her purse in order to feed the meter after parking in the Financial District.David L. Ryan/Globe staff/Globe Staff

When Haystack, the new parking app, held a late-May coming out party in Baltimore, that city’s mayor showed up, happily posing for pictures. When it came time for a similar event in Boston, however, Mayor Martin Walsh turned grumpy, issuing not one but two press releases decrying the company. Haystack, his office worried, would “artificially inflate the cost of parking,” “allow individuals to profit from public space,” and even (a stretch, I think) lead to “distracted driving.”

Walsh frets too much. Haystack is hardly perfect, but it's part of a wave of new applications that seek to solve the most frustrating part of city driving: finding a parking space. Rather than threatening "appropriate measures to prohibit any such app," Walsh should be working with Haystack and similar firms. Welcome change; don't push it away.

Here's how we find on-street parking today: cruising the streets. We try to spot signs that a car might be moving — a closing door, a flash of brake lights, passengers inside. We follow pedestrians with keys in their hands. If we think we're in luck, we stop, blocking traffic, waiting while drivers load packages, belt themselves in, adjust seats, check their hair, and then, finally, drive off.


It's a dumb system, and costly, too. UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup in 2011 said that, "on average, 30 percent of the cars in congested downtown traffic were cruising for parking." An IBM survey of 20 cities worldwide found drivers spending an average of nearly 20 minutes finding a parking spot, making for a gigantic waste of time and fuel. Fixing all of this, quite obviously, would be good for motorists, cities, and the environment.

Haystack's fix involves parkers informing everyone else when they'll be leaving. It's a simple idea. Motorists now circle streets because they don't know when or where parking is available. Haystack lets them know. So why does Boston object to drivers having better information? Why would it want to keep in place our old and wasteful ways?

Money, of course. Haystack charges for its services. Those leaving a parking spot get paid by those who take the spot. The company gets a cut.

Haystack sunnily says it's just charging for information. The city replies that Haystack is "selling" spaces — spaces the city owns. Haystack has the better argument. If the company merely provided the service as a good Samaritan, for instance — making the information freely available to all — I doubt City Hall would be frothing so much. Definitions aside, though, Walsh's opposition misses the broader point: someone should be providing this information. Haystack's business model doesn't burden taxpayers with the cost of doing so, but if the city is so determined to keep control of information about public parking spaces, then it should engage Haystack directly.


There are a host of folks — many of them, like Haystack, looking to make a profit — who see the same kind of opportunities in transforming parking as Uber and Lyft saw in transforming the taxicab industry. SpotHero, for example, is a kind of Priceline for parking garages. SpotAngels helps motorists avoid tickets by alerting them to street cleaning, tow zones, and the like. Parkopedia bills itself as the "Wikipedia for parking."

"The parking revolution will be digitized," runs a headline in the magazine Government Technology. Even Boston is slowly getting into the act, now seeking bidders to provide more modern services. One would let motorists pay tickets via smartphone. A second would allow pay-by-phone parking — a good idea but hardly novel. Parkmobile, for instance, has provided the same service for years in cities such as Washington, D.C.

Anything more cutting-edge, however, will apparently have to wait. In pushing back so hard against Haystack, the Walsh administration looks more reactionary than reformer, more eager to kill interesting new ideas than figuring out how to make them work.


Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com