07/10/14: Boston, MA: Danielle Guigli talks about the parking app as she pays for her meter parking on Newbury Street. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff) section: business topic: 11haystack
A new app would allow users to sell access to public parking spaces.
Jim Davis/Boston Globe

Make no mistake. At least one app is launching in Boston that will allow users to sell public parking spaces to other users.

The folks behind apps like Haystack say that’s not true. They don’t exist to let users sell parking spaces. Users are just buying and selling information on upcoming parking vacancies. A question arises: How, exactly, do you pronounce tomato?

Haystack, which is slated to launch in Boston soon, allows users to log in and put their parking spot out to bid. Other users who are looking for a spot can agree to come fill it for a fee, paid to the driver, of which Haystack takes a bite. (An app similar to Haystack, called Organic Parking out of Cambridge, is also expected to launch locally at some point this summer.)

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Haystack says it doesn’t facilitate the sale of anything but parking availability information. That’s an iffy claim, at best, because by Haystack’s own admission the user does not get paid unless the spot is actually exchanged.

And the claim grows even more ridiculous when you look beyond the app’s basic functionality, which puts a flat fee on paying for the information, and consider its “Make Me Move” feature. With that system, users seeking parking can pay a rate chosen by the parked user for a spot that the other user isn’t planning to vacate but would for the right price. “Not planning on heading out, but willing to move your car for the right price? Offer your spot for extended time during the most in-demand hours to help your neighbors who need it most,” the app’s website reads. If that’s not paying for a public parking spot, what is?

The logic would appear to be that the feature amounts to a user offering information about a person’s willingness to change spots. Asked directly about Make Me Move, Haystack founder and CEO Eric Meyer tells Boston.com: “[T]he ‘Make Me Move’ option allows users parked for a valid reason having nothing to do with making money to let others know that they are willing to inconvenience themselves to help out a neighbor who desperately needs a place to park. Haystack just facilitates that exchange of information and creates a new option that can be many times less expensive than a parking garage if one even exists.”

But let’s be real. Functionally speaking, Haystack lets users put parking spots for sale. At the end of the day, the app (or “platform,” in tech speak) facilitates a contract between two users to exchange money for public parking, which neither of them owns.

That line of thinking is consistent with how regulators have looked at other “sharing” services, like Uber, Airbnb, and most notably Aereo. Aereo, a streaming TV service that houses tiny antennas that pick up broadcast signals in a remote location and allowed subscribers to access the antenna through the internet, was deemed in violation of copyright law by the US Supreme Court last month, because it did not pay broadcasters for retransmission fees as cable companies are required to do.

A compelling argument could be made that Aereo’s technology essentially made it the same as a user connecting an antenna to his or her TV and watching TV the ol’ fashioned way. But the court’s decision against the company was focused on functionality. If it looks like a cable company and if it walks like a cable company, they essentially said, then guess what? It’s a cable company. (In its efforts to stay afloat, Aereo has embraced that label.)

Regulatory efforts surrounding ride-sharing service Uber and short-term rental service Airbnb have certainly reared their heads but haven’t reached that sort of a boiling point. But regulators’ central argument about Uber in efforts to determine whether to regulate it like a cab company have gotten at its its functionality—if you can use it to call for a ride and get from place to place, is it really all that different from a taxi? If Airbnb, at the end of the day, allows users to rent out their homes for vacation stays, how is that really all that different from a bed and breakfast?

Like Haystack, those three services have argued that they are technology companies that facilitate a service. Unlike Haystack, though, those companies inventories don’t come at the expense of those who don’t use their app. Using Uber doesn’t vanquish non-Uber users from broader livery services, and the same can be said for Airbnb with hotels. And both of those companies’ inventories are volunteered; an Uber driver or Airbnb host chooses to enlist their respective services as a driver or as a host, using the car or home that belongs to them. Aereo, meanwhile, co-opts something that doesn’t belong to them. But at least it doesn’t directly create an advantage for Aereo users to access that content which can otherwise be accessed on TV or online.

For Haystack to work, though, it has to leverage something the user does not own, at non-users’ expense, by commodifying a limited public inventory. To succeed it needs lots of drivers to buy in, and begin putting something out to bid that doesn’t belong to them. That means those that don’t do so would be at a disadvantage for finding parking. Following the logic through, that ultimately means anybody who wants to have that advantage in finding a spot needs to use the app, and ultimately pay more just to park. That’s not to say parking prices couldn’t stand to go up, or at least fluctuate—indeed, that alone might help solve the issues of finding public parking by getting more people off the streets—but that should be a public decision, not a private one.

And then there’s the potential for distracted driving caused by use of the app. Addressing that point, Meyer tells me the app’s terms of service tell users to follow local traffic laws, and that the company encourages users to use of hands-free dashboard mounts. But terms of service have a funny way of going ignored.

All of that said, the law is a nice thing to have on your side. And Boston’s traffic and parking regulations don’t seem to immediately address services like Haystack. Asked by The Boston Herald whether the service could be considered illegal, Kate Norton, a spokesperson for Mayor Martin Walsh, said: “I do not have an answer for that.”

Perhaps that’s why after initially drawing a pretty hard line against Haystack, the city seems a bit more conciliatory, as The Boston Globe reports. Haystack says it has been in touch with the city, the city is hoping the two sides can collaborate on making parking in Boston easier, according to the Globe. Parking, after all, was already on the city’s radar before Haystack dropped its needle. But even then, the Globe story indicates the city isn’t fully on-board with Haystack as a service, saying the city is interested in working with Haystack “without profiting from the sale of parking or giving some drivers an unfair advantage.”

Meyer tells Boston.com that conversations were “constructive” and that he does not expect the city to take any “premature actions.” He says hundreds of Boston residents have already downloaded the app. And he says that in the app’s first city, Baltimore, where it launched in late May, “the sky hasn’t fallen.” Which, of course, is setting the bar pretty high.

Meanwhile, across the country in one of the most tech-friendly cities in the nation, a similar parking app has suspended its services in the face of legal action from the City of San Francisco. The difference between the two scenarios might be that San Francisco has laws on the books that prohibit leasing or renting public parking spots. MonkeyParking had used the same “information platform” defense Haystack employs, but presumably realized the argument was BS the day before San Francisco had said it would sue the company. A similar service abandoned its plans to open in San Francisco in light of the city’s threat.

MonkeyParking says it’s not shutting down operations, just that it needs to rework its mission statement to make sure it’s clear about what it does. But there’s no real way around it: The app exists to allow users to buy and sell public parking spaces. Work the language as you wish, but that’s what your service provides.