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.

  • Andres Dee

    If money is to be made on street parking, it should be made by the city/taxpayers who built and maintain those spaces.

  • Agree 100%!! Great article. I hope these apps shame our city governments into charging market-clearing prices for parking.

  • Free Parking Is A Human Right

    Does this app violate NYC Parking Rules 4-08(n)

    (7) Unofficial reserving of parking space. It shall be unlawful for any person to reserve or attempt to reserve a parking space, or prevent any vehicle from parking on a public street through his/her presence in the roadway, the use of hand-signals, or by placing any box, can, crate, handcart, dolly or any other device, including unauthorized pavement, curb or street markings or signs in the roadway.

  • J

    Fantastic article. It’s basic economics: when government artificially sets a price for a good that is below what the market demands for it, there will be shortages. When shortages persist, black markets may develop to link those willing to pay for an good they can’t get, and those who have already obtained said good.

    If you talk about government setting a price for milk, people scream bloody murder, cause bread lines will form due to the ensuing shortages, and they’re right. However, those same folks will fight to keep governmental price controls on parking, despite the shortages and other negative consequences we’ve all been suffering for decades.

  • JD17

    I agree with you — but what if those city officials responsible refuse to collect the money? In most cities, parking is given away for free or for under-market rates and city officials refuse to charge enough for it.

    Think of it this way: if your city government were throwing $20 bills out onto the street here and there, would you blame the people who went and picked up that money? It is the same with free or underpriced parking–quite simply it is giving money away. I am astounded that it took so long for people to figure this out.

  • J

    um, no. Using your car to reserve a parking space in not illegal, based on the law you cite.

  • vnm

    Awesome post. This is exactly right. The appearance of apps like this is a sign (as if we needed another one) that curbside parking is a valuable underpriced commodity. Let the public be the beneficiaries!

  • Dino

    Yet another nearsighted article. What about residential parking, for which Haystack is specifically targeted? Should neighborhood residents be charged outrageous fees to park near their homes, even though they generally pay high taxes? I suppose this approach would hasten gentrification. Can’t get the working class and poor out of their own neighborhoods quickly enough! The free market rules!

    While we’re at it, maybe there should be a middleman to charge the poor for government benefits. They shouldn’t be getting them for free. Right?

  • vnm

    Taxes wouldn’t have to be so high if the government charged for parking what people are evidently willing to pay. Taxes (on drivers and non-drivers alike) are what are being used to subsidize parking.

  • vnm

    Also, even if it is the law, this isn’t enforced. Churches and funeral parlors do it all the time.

  • Dino

    Many services are subsidized by the government and paid for by taxes. I’m all for charging more for metered parking, based on demand. However, the problem with RPPs will persist. Gouging residents with higher fees and apps like Haystack are not the answer.

  • timsmith

    We generally subsidize services that provide a broader public benefit, and that can’t be paid for through user fees. By that measurement, residential parking definitely shouldn’t be free, as it would be easy to charge the full cost of its use, and it provides no general public benefit (storing your car for cheap is not something the government should be bending over backwards to accommodate).

  • Haystack is targeting residential parking? Odd then that their video is about a coffee shop.

  • In San Francisco we pay a yearly fee to park in the Residential Parking Permit zone near our house. The cost is roughly 4x that of a monthly Muni pass.

    Seems like relatively wealthy car owners are getting the deal, while the poor and working class you’re so worried about are the ones already getting the shaft. If those wealthy car owners were able to sell those spaces as they left in the morning, the poor and working class would be additionally discriminated against.

  • SF Guest

    When residents voted in favor of RPPs they voted for $10 permits and not the $110 permits charged today. If the RPP was being voted on today it probably would never have passed. I didn’t vote in favor of the RPP knowing it wouldn’t be $10/year today, but apparently the rest of the voters who voted in favor were too foolish to believe the government will not raise the ante because that’s what they’re best at doing.

    Also the Sunday parking meter enforcement was a sham WITHOUT RPP enforcement on Sundays since those who didn’t want to feed the meters looked towards residential parking not enforced on Sundays. It’s a total hypocrisy to advocate less cars at the meters but not less cars in residential neighborhoods.

  • Really? I’d pay gladly pay double for my RPP if it meant fewer people with multiple vehicles parked for days while I circle around looking for a spot. A rented parking spot in North Beach is $250-$350 per month, so $220 a year would still be a pretty good deal.

    Agree with you about Sunday Meters needing extended RPP enforcement.

  • SF Guest

    Right! Special interest groups are making it fashionable that cars are to be demonized and to discourage this they should be gouged to the hilt while SF government is the benefactor and rakes in the dough while still crying the Muni needs more funding.

    This debate is just going to keep going on year after year with no end in sight and no real resolution. But the common denominator always remains the same — the government needs more funding for their pet projects.

  • SF Guest

    We’ll never find out if others are willing to pay $220/year for RPP, but without a shadow of a doubt they would vote for an RPP at $10/year today.

    In any event I don’t vote for any new taxes unless there’s a clause that guarantees no increases without voter approval.

  • RoyTT

    Except that a RPP doesn’t get you a parking space. It merely gets you immunity for a parking ticket.

  • RoyTT

    The cost of street parking is built into the original street design. Take a typical SF residential street. It is the width of four cars, and then some. And yet it only has two lanes of traffic. Why? Because there are two traffic lanes and two de facto parking lanes.

    Now, those parking lanes are not continuous. They are broken up by garage driveways, bus stops, intersections and a variety of other things. But absent those special cases, you can generally park at the side of the street in the parking lane.

    IOW, it is part of the design of a street that there is parking. And were that not the case then, you could easily get to your destination but then not be able to stop.

    If we are going to fund roads and cars at all, then parking is part of the deal. If we want to invest in enough off-street parking, then maybe we can ban parking on the street, but not until then.

  • My experience was that when the RPP went from $10 to $45 then to $110 in SF, parking became noticeably easier with each increase. However, you are right that RPP is no guarantee.

  • RoyTT

    That law is so stop residents making the space outside their home unavailable to anyone else by putting obstructions there.

    It doesn’t really cover this case where I simply sit in my car until my “friend” shows up and then we swap places. In fact, it’s hard to see how you could write a law that would effectively forbid that. It would be like making it illegal for me to hold your place in a line.

  • vcs

    Bending over backwards? The author can use euphemisms like “curbside parking management”, but we are really talking about putting parking meters everywhere and hiring a boatload of traffic officers. That doesn’t sound very “easy” to me (or any politician).

    In any case, San Francisco has a revenue program for residential parking which is forgotten in these discussions. It is called “street cleaning”.

  • Dino

    In that case, use of roads and highways should never be “free” for anyone, despite all the taxes being paid. Let’s put GPS systems on every car and charge drivers by the minute. Better yet, let’s get taxed by how much air we all breathe. Air shouldn’t be “free” either.

  • Joe R.

    You’re operating on the assumption that car travel must be door-to-door, or close to it. You can have only a fraction of streets with parking, perhaps even none at all if you have off-street parking. That’s a perfectly acceptable model. Most forms of public transit don’t get you door-to-door. Cars don’t have to, either. If you have to walk 5 blocks on either end of a car trip to your final destination it’s not the end of world. In fact, often in huge suburban mall parking lots you have to walk that much anyway to get from where you parked to whatever store you’re going to. Parking doesn’t have to be everywhere. In fact, cars don’t need access to every single street, either. For the minority who can’t walk far, nothing is stopping the driver from letting them out near their destination, then parking elsewhere. It’s really only the severely disabled or very elderly who might require door-to-door service.

  • David Marcus

    Most of SF’s streets were built before cars. It’d be freakishly prescient if those 19th century urban planners were thinking about car storage on public streets.

  • murphstahoe

    This is horse hockey. There are plenty of publically owned goods which are not subsidized and the use of which for high fees is not considered demonization or discouragement.

    Attendance at the Academy of Sciences is DEMONIZED! DISCOURAGED!

  • murphstahoe

    If the RPP was being voted on today it probably would never have passed.

    What the hell are you talking about? RPP is ALWAYS voted on. It is the choice of the neighborhoods that have RPP to initiate an RPP program, and they can be REMOVED at the behest of the neighborhood as well.

    The price of the RPP is solely set such that the city breaks even on the administration of the program.

  • murphstahoe

    Setting RPP’s at $10/year would mean that everyone who does not have an RPP on their car is subsidizing those who do, because the program would not collect enough in fees to cover the people who mail out the stickers.

  • DaveQus

    more Free Parking! it’s the American way!

  • DaveQus

    there is a state law that limits that fee to the cost of program administration.

  • Gillian
  • Gillian

    Proposition 218 precludes fees from being levied beyond the cost of administering the fee program. To raise revenue in California, government must propose a tax at the ballot.

  • Gillian

    Many San Francisco neighborhoods predate the automobile. And many buildings in those neighborhoods were altered to include garages. The effects of those alterations on streets and parking supply is interesting – it often reduces the supply of parking. Read this:

  • Actually, the roads are a giant money sink for taxpayers, including those who drive little. Drivers can’t be “gouged” while getting a free ride.

  • Each on-street parking spot costs taxpayers about $400 per year, so RPPs are heavily subsidized at $110. Subsidizing public education makes sense. Driving, not so much.

  • Dino

    Why do you think they keep referring to “neighbors” instead of “users”?

  • Dino

    The appearance of apps like this, in and of itself, is not a sign that parking is underpriced. The fact of the matter is that very few people are using these apps. Haystack will be out of business very soon. Does the lack of unscrupulous users of these apps mean that parking is perfectly priced? No, it doesn’t.

  • Dino

    This eloquent guy has said it best:

  • qrt145

    Of course it’s underpriced. If it were not underpriced, there would not be shortages and no one would have bothered to invent such an app.

  • Ian Turner

    Hyperventilation can have serious consequences, you might want to give this a try:

  • bolwerk

    Legal or not, the apps still facilitate what can morally described as theft. It just happens to be a form of theft that mostly impacts people who are already committing theft themselves by taking orders of magnitude more space than everyone else.

    I don’t get very upset about it, because it’s mostly a lateral move from the standpoint of space utilization, but it still is what it is. Such an app pays no attention to what should count, like who needs the space.

  • J

    Is it price gouging to charge market price for soda? No, because soda has all sorts of societal costs, such as an increased health care burden that everyone (including non-soda drinkers) pays for. For this reason some cities have even considered soda taxes. The same goes for alcohol in a lot of places.

    Similarly, is it price gouging to charge market price for parking? What is the public benefit to keeping parking prices low, and who experiences that benefit? Maybe, you reduce parking costs for the folks wealthy enough to own a car in the first place. Is there a public cost? Yes, and it’s congestion , pollution, road injuries and deaths. Any rational economist would tell you that, if anything, parking should be taxed to discourage behavior that is detrimental to society.

  • J

    What is nearsighted is subsidizing wealthy residents to store their private property in public space, at the expense of other uses of that space. How can you possibly say that is good policy? Maybe if public parking had a host of externalities that benefited everyone, but the inconvenient truth is that any benefits go to a very small, typically wealthy group of people, and the whole host of negative externalities are experienced by everyone. The only reason this type of policy hasn’t changed is that the people that enjoy underpriced parking (you) scream bloody murder at the thought of having to pay a more market-based price.

    Basically, you’ve got your subsidy and you’ll fight tooth and nail to keep it, public interests be damned.

  • What about residential parking? Of course neighborhood residents should be charged! You pay the city for the amount of water you use, don’t you? Why not pay for the amount of parking you use? Want to pay less? Use less! The actual amount charged need not be that high to make a dramatic difference in the number of available spots. I believe even in some of the most troublesome parts of the City a relatively low muni-meter rate of $2/day (less on weekends) would completely clear up the problem. Can’t afford $500/year? Maybe you really shouldn’t be driving a car in Manhattan!

  • Dino

    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. It’s way too much hassle, but the cost of parking has literally nothing to do with it. Traffic, congestion, tolls, cost of ownership, etc, would be my biggest reasons. Bottom line: I couldn’t afford to own a car there, regardless of the parking situation. But having an app like Haystack come in and gouge people will only make matters worse while not actually solving anything.

    I don’t expect to get much empathy on an anti-car blog intended for NYC residents. I am well aware of the problems you all face. I live in a much smaller city that generally has parking problems late at night, and only in certain neighborhoods. But my taxes are still very high compared to the surrounding suburbs. Public transit has improved in recent years, but it still sucks. I still need my car and would be unable to be a productive citizen without it. But just because I need my car, it doesn’t mean I should be punished severely for owning one.

  • I assume you have gracious, civic-minded neighbors who are willing to assert that the residents being “punished severely” in your burg are the non-motorists who are forced to rely on a underfunded transit system while curbside parking is being given away for nothing. Can you ask some of them to comment here?


  • True Freedom

    Ah, but the wealthy subsidize all sorts of other things with large tax bills. If you want to remove subsidies.. remove them all; however, it won’t be the wealthy that bear the brunt of that. Be careful what you wish for..

  • Alex Brideau III

    Yes. If I sit in my parked car while waiting for my “friend” to arrive, I’m actually the parked party. If I’m not violating the meter or posted signage, the reason I’m parked is irrelevant.

  • What has been left out of this conversation is the uses the space allocated to “free” parking could be allocated to, bike/ped infrastructure that gets people around without getting them killed. I count this as THE highest cost of “free” parking.



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