Why Boston Allows Uber But Opposes Haystack

Is the City of Boston's resistance to a new parking app a similar case to government concern about apps like Uber?

The City of Boston has come out strongly against Haystack, a newly launching phone app that lets users pay to reserve another user’s public parking spot, and the comparisons abound between that app and Uber, another transportation-focused app that’s faced pushback from cities where it operates. So the question arises: is this the same kind of case? Should fans of Uber, the smartphone app that hails private drivers to your location, turn out in droves to protest regulations of another app facing city scrutiny?

Haystack allows users who plan to vacate a parking spot to let other users know, and hold the space for the first taker for a small fee. The hope is to make the process of finding a street parking spot more efficient. Though Boston officials initially took a more conciliatory pose toward Haystack, on Tuesday, Mayor Marty Walsh released a statement saying the city would not support the app’s operations in Boston.

Haystack isn’t the first iteration of the so-called “sharing economy” to face scrutiny from municipalities for operating outside pre-existing regulatory structures. Uber and AirBnB, a site that lets you rent out space in your apartment like a bed and breakfast, have seen resistance, too. But both still operate in Boston. Mayor Marty Walsh’s statement lays out the City’s reasons for resisting Haystack in particular:

Services like Haystack […] artificially inflate the cost of parking and allow individuals to profit from public space. Neither of these activities is in line with the City’s effort to keep parking as open and publicly accessible as possible. These spaces are publicly owned, and cannot be privately sold.

The “sharing economy” has mostly enabled people to share their private resources—an apartment or a car—with other users. Haystack, the city argues, is allowing them to squat on public resources and then sell them off. Parking apps with a similar model have faced scrutiny, even in tech-oriented cities like San Francisco, for the same reasons.

Haystack’s counter to this is that they aren’t allowing users to sell public property. They are allowing them to sell information about public property. App users hunting for a space aren’t paying Haystack users for parking. (They still have to pay the city for that.) They’re paying for the knowledge of where the parking can be found. Mike Ross, former mayoral candidate and city council president, came out in support of the app on Tuesday, showing that there are two sides to the debate even among city politicians.

In the end, the difference for Haystack may come down to the courts. But, as in Uber’s case, it may also came down to how much the public cares. Uber overcame the state’s initial opposition to its operations in part because its fans freaked out when the state initially stopped its operations. And they continue to protest attempts to regulate it. If Haystack were to build a similarly vocal community of fans, it might be one step closer to similar benefits. But Uber had time to build that fan base. The City is jumping on Haystack before the app even gets off the ground in Boston.

Haystack’s founder said in a statement that the app will still move forward. If it wants to make its arguments see more persuasive to the City of Boston, it should hope that its service first persuades the city’s residents.