Don’t Hate the Parking App Profiteers, Hate the Free Parking Game

Haystack, the latest app allowing drivers to sell access to a parking space, blazed across the Internet this month after Boston Mayor Martin Walsh threatened to ban it. Valleywag called it a “scourge.” The Awl compared it to profiteering off access to clean water. The haters have it wrong though: The apps aren’t screwing over the public — local governments are.

Following on the heels of MonkeyParkingHaystack is a recent Baltimore-based entry that borrows heavily from car service Uber for its look and feel. If you’re new to the grey market of sell-your-parking-spot apps, take a look at the promotional video. The premise is simple: A driver about to leave a parking spot can use the software to sell the space to another app-using driver cruising for parking. Haystack also has a “make me move” feature where users offer to move their vehicles for the right price, even if they hadn’t planned on going anywhere.

The video itself is a bit much. Over cheery music, a smiling young woman about to drive around Baltimore says things like, “Together, we did our part to make our neighborhood a little greener.”

Go ahead and vomit at the smugness of the marketing campaign. But putting a price on curbside parking isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that these apps are a poor substitute for real public policy that manages the curbside parking supply for the public good.

The ability to store private vehicles for free on scarce public street space is not an inalienable human right, nor does it make cities more equitable. In fact, underpriced car storage has a whole host of negative consequences. In New York, for example, most parking is free or underpriced, so there usually aren’t too many open spots. That leads drivers to circle in vain, clogging the streets and slowing down transit. With a better system of curbside parking management, New York would have faster buses, better air quality, and safer streets — not to mention less double-parkingfraud, and maybe even physical violence.

And if cities actually charged the optimal price for parking, the value of curbside parking spaces would be captured by the public instead of being pocketed by a small population of app users. Governments could use the money to improve schools, or transit, or to make streets safer for walking and biking.

So far, most cities have demonized the apps without confronting their own broken parking policies. In a statement against Haystack, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said the app “may artificially inflate the cost of spaces.” But if people are willing to pay more for the ability to access a parking spot, local governments and the public they serve are the ones missing out on the benefits. The status quo that Walsh is defending is essentially a subsidy for parking that hinders transit and street safety.

It’s easy to get mad at parking-for-profit app makers. The object of derision, though, should be local governments and the political refusal to change policies that created an opening for these apps in the first place.

  • Alex Brideau III

    So let me get this straight: I’m ready to leave and as I’m gathering my things I use this app to notify nearby drivers (who also just happen to be using this particular app) that I’m in the process of departing. That would seem to be a very short window of opportunity for a very specific transaction to take place. And a driver accustomed to “free” parking is probably still going to circle just in case they can find a free spot instead of having to pay for my spot.

    It’s not clear how this app makes a neighborhood “a little greener”. Instead of a car circling for parking, the driver will likely just choose to idle next to the parking spot that is “about to be” freed up, still burning through gas … and also now blocking auto and bicycle traffic to boot.

    And let’s not forget that this requires a driver to launch the app, scrutinize options, select a spot, and confirm payment all while driving. Not exactly the safest app out there.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I was wondering the same thing. Sounds like the video just includes a lot of Haystack marketing speak. “Neighbors” sure sounds a lot more community minded than “users” or “buyers”.

  • Sam

    Why should the City, and therefore all the other taxpayers in the City – including those people who have homes with adequate parking spaces and probably then pay higher property taxes than those who don’t have on site parking – subsidize the storage of your car on a public street? To me, this is where the rationale falls apart. If you MUST have car parking, then find a place to live that includes car parking, or find a place to park your car. If you MUST have cable TV, then you have to pay for it. If you MUST have hot water, you have to pay for it. The list can go on and on…

  • Alex Brideau III

    It’s not just New York. Market rate for parking in Downtown Los Angeles is in the $90-$150/month range … and this is in car-friendly LA! (The $500/year Tal F mentioned would be a bargain!)

    I’m not a big unchecked-capitalism fan, but what you call being “punished severely” is just a free market at work. An entrepreneur launches a service he thinks he can make money from, and he offers it. The market will determine whether his business model will survive. I’m not sure you’re being “punished severely” because you “need” your car but if you buy into the Haystack business model you will be paying extra for a new service* that like a car payment, fuel, insurance, etc., are the costs of the convenience of having a car.

    *All that being said, I think the app has very limited usefulness and may not survive long. (The Haystack parking spots will be vacated anyway; all a driver is paying for is “first dibs”.)

  • Andres Dee

    It is a shame on the city.

  • Dino

    Exactly @True Freedom. The car-haters here want car subsidies removed, but they seem to be forgetting that public transit is heavily subsidized (even in NYC). And *anyone* who uses the sidewalk or street for any reason (including walking and biking) is taking advantage of a subsidized asset.

    But I will admit that I’m not surprised to see this kind of attitude on a car-bashing site. However, if the other subsidies I mentioned were removed, everyone here would be up in arms!

    And let’s not forget that we’re talking about Haystack. The concept to scalp parking spaces was devised by Eric Meyer, someone who apparently has refused to use one of several available means of public transit from one part of Baltimore City to another.

    But yeah, let’s defend Haystack and support its greedy, anti-transit CEO and attack the guy who came here to express his opinion.

    By the way, those here who support removing all government subsidies, you might want to consider the implication of that. What we’d essentially be moving over to is a flat usage tax and doing away with the income tax and all social programs. Who do you think will benefit from this? Who will be hurt? Do you know who shares your views? Conservatives on the extreme right. Do you know which political ideology is also generally against funding public transit? Yeah, you guessed it.

  • Dino

    In my city, there are shortages at night because of overdevelopment that has occurred in particular “desirable” neighborhoods in recent years. Rather than invest in areas of the city where it is desperately needed, developers have been tearing down historic buildings and increasing density in the areas that do not need more development. But I suppose this kind of development is OK, as long as car owners are demonized in the process.

  • J

    Maybe you weren’t paying attention. I said remove subsidies for things with negative externalities (like, say parking and driving) and subsudize things with positive externalities (like taking transit). If you actually read what I said, you’d understand that I never said to remove all subsidies. I’m not trying to bash cars, I’m just saying that we should subsidize driving, as it’s not helping society. Yes, differentiating between things requires thinking for more than one second, but it can be done, I assure you. If you’re not really open to rational, logical debate, based on the points I made, then I’m going to assume you are just trolling.

  • Dino

    I see. In other words, you want what you support to be subsidized, while everything else that you do not support should not get subsidized. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And in your view cars are so detrimental that they do not warrant *any* kind of so-called “subsidies.”

    I’m open to rational, logical debate without condescension and insults, but I don’t think that will be possible with you. Have a good day.

  • vnm

    Exactly. “Marketing.”

  • J

    I’m in favor of intelligent and rational distribution of public goods and resources.

    Subsidized parking creates negative externalities including congestion (from people circling for spaces which don’t exist due to the shortage from being underpriced), increased injuries (from people looking for open parking spots and not for other humans and cars on the road), pollution (from increased driving and idling), noise (from more driving/congestion), stress, etc. which are born by the general population. Please inform me why the government should continue to subsidize this, cause it doesn’t seem like we’re getting a good return on our money.

    Subsidize transit reduces congestion, reduces pollution, increases health (more walking), lowering public spending on health care, etc. Please inform me why this is something the public should not subsidize, cause it seems like this gives a great return on our money.

  • murphstahoe

    The building of sidewalks does not subsidize walking. It subsidizes *driving* by removing pedestrians from the roads.

  • murphstahoe

    Manhattan is a unique case, due to the extremely high density and
    availability of good public transit. If I lived there, I would not own a
    car.

    The places we are discussing – places like San Francisco – have marginal public transit because we have chosen to subsidize cars at a level that reduces the potential subsidy for transit. If you think that the availability of good public transit is a “good thing”, then we need to fund it. It’s not as if San Francisco has inherently bad public transit, it was decided at some point that private vehicles should be prioritized. This may not be the most prudent decision.

  • qrt145

    Nice strawman argument. No one said anything about removing all subsidies. The argument here is to remove subsidies for things that cause more harm than good, and some of us think that car parking falls in that category.

  • jimcc3

    The fallacy in this article is the claim that I can’t be mad at both my
    local government (Baltimore City) for their ineffectiveness at
    ameliorating the parking situation AND Eric Meyer for copying
    MonkeyParking’s bad business model and hiring programmers to create a
    useless app all while congratulating himself for being the most
    innovative and eco-conscious entrepreneur out there. He acts as if he
    already single-handedly ended global warming.

    His first marketing video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-6tAxrDsOw) was
    so over the top that I thought it was a joke. Did it remind anyone else of that old SNL commercial for Crystal Gravy
    (https://screen.yahoo.com/crystal-gravy-000000611.html)? I kept waiting
    for the twist in the Haystack video where someone seemingly sweet had
    been driving around looking for parking and then unexpectedly started
    cussing out another driver for cutting her off to steal an open spot —
    cue the Haystack plug: to end the stress of looking for parking.

    Let’s not pretend it’s more than a way to lessen the stress of one person
    looking for parking. It’s not a private market solution to failed
    government policy because using Haystack just shifts the problem to the next
    person. It’s certainly not going to make any measurable difference in
    emissions since (if anyone was actually using it) there would be a
    trade-off with idling cars.

    Luckily for all of us haters in Baltimore, no one is actually using Haystack except journalists and bloggers.

  • Andrew

    In my city, there are shortages at night because of overdevelopment that has occurred in particular “desirable” neighborhoods in recent years.

    Actually, shortages are caused by underpricing. Raise the price of parking and watch demand drop.

    (For some reason, a lot of people are happy to apply the laws of economics to everything aside from driving and parking.)

  • Andrew

    I need food, but I still have to pay for it when I go to the grocery store.

    I need shelter, but the landlord still expects me to pay the rent.

    Even if you need to drive, paying for parking is not severe punishment – it’s simply payment for the stuff that you use. Whether you need that stuff or it’s purely discretionary is beside the point.

  • StepUpAndSaySomething

    The app sounds dangerous to use while driving. We should just have parking meters that charge different rates so on average there is always 20% availability.

  • Miles Bader

    +100000 … I’m so sick of reading endless me-too pile-on smug rants about how this is the evilest app in existence and it must be crushed to save our precious free/cheap parking. Maybe this app isn’t the best way to address it, but your precious free/cheap parking is the real problem here, people… ><

  • Miles Bader

    Should neighborhood residents be charged outrageous fees to park near their homes

    Yes.

  • Joe R.

    The problem here is when people have been used to getting something free for, in this case, literally decades, they start to view it as an entitlement. The worst thing we ever did in cities was to allow curbside parking to begin with. The second worst thing was to not charge for it. I would personally rather just get rid of curbside parking than charge for it. It’s ugly, people parking disrupt the traffic flow, people exiting cars are a hazard to other road users, parked cars block lines of sight, and the space could be put to better use. If businesses or individuals really value parking so much, they’ll build off-street parking lots (complete with ramps which go over or under sidewalks so pedestrians don’t have to deal with driveways).

  • Cityflower

    City taxpayers aren’t subsidizing “free parking spots”. Drivers are. Last year alone the city made almost 900 million in revenue from parking and other minor violations. So actually, the drivers are subsidizing people like you.

  • Parking revenue is actually about $500 million, but still, the city could make so much more by renting out all that prime curbside real estate to the highest bidder. Heck, they could probably make $500 million from the parking spots in midtown alone.

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