Mayor Walsh: not all innovation is good for Boston

(Photo by Kyle Alspach)
(Photo by Kyle Alspach)

When Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke recently about the promise of the tech sector for shaping the future of Boston, he used the word “innovation” 16 times during the 20-minute talk (according to my notes, at least).

Among the instances: “I think the quickest way for us to close that divide, between the middle class and poor, is by using innovation and technology.”

But innovation also has the potential to increase the divide, a point Walsh admits in Callum Borchers’ story today about Haystack, an app for passing off street parking spots to other drivers (for a $3 fee).

The app, expanding to Boston this week, is a new entrant into the “sharing economy” — except the commodity that people are sharing is a public resource, not one they own. “Instead of circling the block, praying for a parking space to open up, a Haystack user would receive an electronic notification that someone else in the network is about to leave a nearby spot, and could call dibs for a few bucks,” Borchers writes. From the story:

Haystack’s service puts a price tag on parking spots the city intended to be free and tacks extra charges onto metered spaces, without contributing anything to public coffers. It’s a business model that could promote class warfare, with people who can afford smartphones, data plans, and additional parking fees gaining an advantage over those who cannot.

And Walsh isn’t happy about it:

“We encourage innovation, particularly relative to addressing our transportation challenges in Boston,” said Kate Norton, a spokeswoman for Walsh. “Services like Haystack, however, artificially inflate the cost of parking and allow individuals to profit from public space. Neither of these activities are in line with the city’s effort to keep parking as open and publicly accessible as possible.”

What exactly Walsh wants to do—or even can do—about it is unclear. As Haystack’s founder points out in the article, the company isn’t selling parking spaces—just information about parking spaces.

So, it’s another one of the issues for us all to grapple with in the new frontier that is the sharing/gig economy. But Walsh, at least, is on record that he won’t blindly support just anything simply because it calls itself innovation.

Kyle Alspach has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since 2005 and was one of the original staff writers at BetaBoston.
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