While Mayor Martin J. Walsh came out hard against Haystack, the parking app that lets users “sell” access to parking spaces they’re leaving, the company has found one prominent local ally who sees nothing but upside: Mike Ross, a former City Council president and mayoral candidate, and a regular Globe contributor.
“I am a supporter of the app, and I think it represents progress and something that we shouldn’t be afraid of,” he told me. “I’m not sure what the downside is.”
During his mayoral run, Ross campaigned hard on building a more innovative, “smarter” city, and he said he sees that as a step in that direction.
He said the opportunity for Haystack came about because of the city’s sluggish innovation on the parking front, and that it was up to the city to get out of the way and help, not slow, innovators.
“Five, 10 years from now, people are going to scratch their head that meters had to be read manually,” said Ross. “That’ll be replaced by a computer.” In the meantime, he said services like Haystack let the city push its services into the 21st century without investing a dime.
Cities fighting this kind of technology are simply holding themselves back, he said.
“This is a fast-moving area,” he said. “There are two kinds of cities, those that embrace it and those that try and stop it. And sometimes we try to be both.” He pointed to the bumps that Uber had when entering Boston and Cambridge, facing scrutiny from regulators and an entrenched taxi industry that was wary of the new entrant.
“The city knew full well that it was coming here,” he said. “It didn’t have to have the hard landing it hand.”
But a hard landing is exactly what Haystack is looking at, with the mayor vowing to stop companies from reselling public access:
BTD will continue to evaluate any and all systems that may infringe upon the public’s right to equal access and/or those that may artificially inflate the cost of spaces on Boston roadways and in municipal off-street parking lots, and BTD will take appropriate measures to prohibit any such app that is determined to do so.
Haystack stated that it is not selling public parking spaces, only information about spaces, but on the company’s own website it invites users to “offer your spot for cash,” which sounds a whole lot like selling public parking spaces. San Francisco recently banned several similar apps, with local politicians calling them predatory and a safety risk, points the mayor’s statement echoed.
The services counter that they’re safe, offering voice-to-text tools for sellers and buyers to communicate, and claiming that they’re environmentally friendly by cutting down the amount of time people spending looking for a spot.
And for Ross, there’s personal history between him and the meters: In 2007, he was found to have “abused his parking ticket privilege” for waiving about $1,000 worth of tickets accrued during his personal time (council members were allowed to waive tickets received during official business) and fined $2,000.
For many, including myself, the problem with these apps is that they take a public good and, rather than improve it, simply resell it, making access easier for the wealthy and digitally connected, and quite frankly worse for everyone who doesn’t feel like giving the Baltimore startup a few cents every time they roll up to the Boston Common (the app encourages those leaving a location to wait a few minutes extra so that another Haystacker can swoop in to the spot).
Yes, Boston parking is a frustrating mess, particularly for the 10 months a year the city faces winter storms. Technology can improve that, including with technology like the parking spot sensors that San Francisco is trialing (which, admittedly, is rather inaccurate in snowier places like Boston). But encouraging apps that essentially hold spot seekers hostage for a $3 ransom isn’t innovation.
Full disclosure: There’s also some personal history between me and Prince Lobel, the law firm Ross currently works for. They represented me pro bono when the state threatened to jail me, and I recently spoke there at a free event. I was not paid, but they did give me some very nice coffee.