A New Parking App Charges You to Claim a Free Parking Space

Haystack lets those who are leaving parking spaces alert other drivers ... for a price.

It has always been hard to find parking. By City of Boston Archives on Flickr

The old school problem of parking. By City of Boston Archives on Flickr

Parking is exactly the kind of old-school inconvenience that seems ripe for improvement with smartphone apps, which is why we’ve already seen a rash of techie solutions that try to help Boston drivers find open spaces and even rent out private ones. Now, the Boston Globe reports, a new app is doing something seemingly stranger: raising the potential price you can pay for public parking. The app, Haystack, debuts Tuesday, and the Globe describes its operations this way:

An occupant of a parking space alerts other app users the spot is opening up. The first driver to respond gets to claim the space, then receives precise directions and a description of the departing vehicle. The holder of the parking space declares how long he will wait around for his successor, who pays only when the two exchange spots.

The cost is $2.25 paid to the previous holder of the space and $0.75 to the app itself. City officials have already complained that the company is taking public property and allowing people to profit from it. They point to all sorts of negative outcomes like a world where democratic street parking that is meant to go to the lucky sap who happens to find it will now instead go to the Uncle Pennybags who is willing to shell out $3 for it.

That is, by the way, actually one way that cities themselves have sought to ease the problem of public parking. San Francisco has a dynamic pricing system that varies meter prices between less-popular areas and higher-demand areas. Instead of determining who gets a spot based on luck and coincidence, this kind of system tries to keep spots open by asking those who really want to park right on Newbury Street to pay a bit more than those who are willing to walk from a less desirable space.

But as we learn every time a private space in the Back Bay sells for the price of a small island nation, parking real estate in Boston is quite valuable. So the city risks spawning a secondary market by giving it away for artificially low prices. When the city won’t charge as much as people are willing to pay for the precious resource that is public parking, it isn’t surprising that apps like Haystack jump into the mix to raise the price for the city. Even San Francisco doesn’t have a perfectly efficient system and has had trouble with private apps doing much the same thing as Haystack. But unlike San Francisco, the Globe reports that Boston is taking a “wait and see” attitude toward the app. They have reason to be curious. If Haystack really does show that people are willing to pay an extra $3 for property that the city owns, it’ll be a valuable lesson.