Haystack Attack: Officials Urged App Inventors to Pump the Brakes On Operations

The controversial parking technology came under fire during a committee meeting at City Hall.

City Hall Photo uploaded by cliff1066™ on flickr

City Hall Photo uploaded by cliff1066™ on flickr

City officials are convinced: the use of the controversial smartphone app Haystack doesn’t only take public property and put it up for sale, but it’s also going to lead to a fistfight or other road rage incident that the police department just doesn’t have time to handle. That’s why they want it banned.

“It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen on our property,” said Boston City Councilor Tim McCarthy, during a public hearing about the app on Wednesday. “That’s our major concern. The department is out there protecting citizens everyday, and now this is just one more thing on their radar they’re going to have to pay attention to.”

McCarthy’s concerns were just a few of those voiced during a meeting before the council’s Committee on Government Operations. Other council members, officials from the police department, Boston Transportation Department, and Mayor Marty Walsh’s office of New Urban Mechanics also backed McCarthy’s protestations against the use of the new technology.

But Eric Meyer, CEO and founder of Haystack, argued Wednesday that his business model hasn’t led to fisticuffs in other cities where they’ve launched, and defended the idea that what he’s merely trying to do is find a resolution to Boston’s plague of parking problems.

“Haystack provides a platform for neighbors to exchange information about the availability of parking spaces in realtime,” said 24-year-old Meyer. “Our model isn’t perfect, but it’s a start.”

Haystack allows people to download an app, and then connect with and alert drivers in the area about a spot opening up. In exchange for leaving a parking space, the person holding the spot gets a set amount of money. Haystack then pockets a small percentage of that transaction.

The meeting was held to discuss a proposed ordinance filed by Councilor Frank Baker on July 30, days after Haystack launched in Boston, which would prohibit the selling, leasing, or reserving of public ways and city owned streets by any person or business. It would also carry a $250 fine for each violation.

Baker said Wednesday that Haystack essentially sells the city’s assets for a business plan, and he wanted to “get in front of it” before people start inventing other apps that rent out public property for a fee.

In this instance, the proposal indirectly took aim at Haystack, but the company’s founder felt singled out as he sat there and defended the company.

“Passing this ordinance in response to one company would set a bad precedent,” said Meyers during opening remarks. “It would tell people, ‘thanks, but no thanks, we know innovation best, and we know what innovation is permissible.’”

Meyer tried to compare Haystack to businesses like Zipcar, which offers daily and hourly car rentals to customers, and services like Uber and Lyft. He said that shutting down Haystack would deter innovators in Boston.

“The direct intent is to outlaw Haystack’s service,” said Meyer. “That takes a step backwards for parking innovation, and for innovation of any kind.”

He said it sends an ominous message to innovators, startups, and entrepreneurial teams across the city dreaming up new ways to move society forward.

But Baker and others swatted down that notion, citing the city’s continued efforts to create and share tech-savvy options to better residents’ lives, and said the main difference between Haystack’s operations and what other companies do is that Haystack leverages private property to make money.

“We own the streets, the city owns the streets,” said Baker. “That’s where our problem lies. You’re looking to trade our streets and our spots. You’re trying to make us anti-innovation—if it’s a good idea and not infringing on something the city owns, then we are all in, but I have a hard time trading city spaces that aren’t yours.”

McCarthy added that Meyer needed to “put to rest” claims that Haystack was trying to help residents of Boston by making parking easier and admit that it’s all about business.

“This isn’t about information sharing; this is about cash, it’s about the dollar sign,” he said. “This is about your business—and good luck to you—but as Councilor Baker so eloquently put it, this is also about our spaces.”

City Councilor Matt O’Malley, who also attended the hearing, said he welcomes innovation, but he just can’t “fathom” how this would work. He then “urged” Meyer to suspend services in Boston.

“This [app] isn’t out of the goodness of your heart…it’s to generate money, and that is what causes great concern,” he said.

The ordinance will now go to the full City Council for consideration and vote at a later hearing.