The next chapter in Canton’s ongoing parking saga is a new app called Haystack.
In principle, the app is simple.
Haystack, which went live for Apple IOS users yesterday, allows a driver who needs a parking space to connect with a driver leaving a parking space for mutual benefit, instead of relying on luck, serendipity, and the gods of parking.
The app applies to public parking spaces, both metered and free. Therein lies the devil with a lot of Canton neighbors: that someone is—or might be — making a few bucks capitalizing on the city’s scarce parking assets.
Haystack is a citywide app, says its creator Eric Meyer, a Canton resident, but he anticipates that Canton, Fell’s Point, and Federal Hill, because of their parking problems and visitor traffic, will be its most popular areas.
This is how Haystack will work. Drivers leaving a parking spot can make $2.25 for giving a fellow Haystacker a heads up, connecting, coordinating, and letting them pull in as they pull out. Drivers who need the spot pay $3.00. Haystack keeps 75 cents as a transaction fee.
Users download the free app and set up an account with a credit card and details about their car, such as make, model and size. A “Haystacker” can offer up a street or meter space that he will soon be vacating. A fellow Haystacker uses the app to locate a space that will soon be available, and if it’s the right size for her car and in the right location, she meet up with the other driver and the two make the switch.
Meyer, who has lived in Canton for one year and in Mt. Vernon before that, has experienced parking problems first hand. He says he got the idea for Haystack after getting his car booted because he got so many tickets.
The idea, he says, is locals making other locals aware of open spaces.
“That way you’re not driving around the block for a half hour, hoping you come across one,” he says.
“Sometimes you get home late, you’ve been on your feet all night, and you’re like, ‘I’ll just take the ticket,’” adds Meyer, who lives on Rose St. and used to work at a restaurant before he became an entrepreneur.
He says his intent is for locals to help each other out—the cash is an incentive so people make soon-to-be vacated spaces publicly known– not so that users make money, $2.25 at a time.
Because of the app’s GPS, Haystackers can follow each other in real time, says Meyer, thereby facilitating an easy exchange. And if for some reason, that connection is not made–the parking spot is not successfully transferred–then no money changes hands, and Haystack’s customer care team can deal with any issues.
How Haystackers would deal with a non-Haystacker driver looking for a parking space while a Haystacker transaction is taking place worries some Cantonites.
“Picture this,” wrote Doug Vinson on the Canton Neighbors Facebook page. “You are riding around the block searching for a spot when you see someone about to move their car. You pull up and ask if they are leaving and they say they just sold their parking spot, and they are saving it for someone. Doesn’t seem fair or neighborly to me.”
(Vinson gave the Guide permission to quote his post for this article.)
Legally, if a random driver in need of a space sees a Haystacker get in his or her car, the non-Haystack user has as much right to the soon-to-be-vacated space as anyone else.
In that case, the Haystacker would, hopefully, give up the public space to whoever got there first—that’s what Haystack’s user agreement implies.
Haystackers agree “not to obstruct traffic or impede anyone from parking in a valid space; not to reserve or attempt to reserve a parking space, or prevent any vehicle from parking on a public street through your presence in the roadway…not to threaten, deter, or intimidate any other person in order to prevent them from access or using a parking space.”
Another problem some Cantonites have with the Haystack concept is one of perceived equity, particularly among older, lower-income drivers, and non-native speakers of English
“The app will marginalize certain demographics…” says Jill Koehler “Anyone who can’t or doesn’t use a smart phone will have even more trouble finding a spot than they do now…Other parking suggestions, such as permit parking, are more inherently fair across the board.”
To that, Meyer says, “Haystack is simply one option [for finding parking]. That’s all it is.”
Koehler and other neighbors also fear that Haystack could contribute to distracted driving, which is illegal. Haystack is aware of the potential and addresses distracted driving in its user agreement.
Haystack users agree “to comply with all applicable laws relating to the use of mobile and handheld devices while driving.”
Meyer encourages Haystackers to employ a dash mount like he does.
“The app will be no more distracting that a mounted GPS,” he says.
Making money on free parking
Perhaps the greatest concern expressed about Haystack so far is that the app enables users and the company to make money on a public asset: parking.
Meyer says that Haystack is not “selling” parking, because the spaces and metered spots belong to the city–and therefore to everyone–on a first-come, first-serve basis.
It also says as much in Haystack’s user agreement, which states that the “company is not selling, providing, furnishing, reselling, renting, acting as a broker for, or otherwise providing you parking or access to parking.”
Haystack presents itself as in the platform and information-sharing business, a “platform for sharing information about parking.”
Or, to put it another way, says Meyer: “Haystack facilitates an efficient exchange of info between neighbors.”
In the user agreement, the users are called “information providers” and “information seekers.”
Potential for abuse
When asked whether he thinks locals with parking pads or garages might park on the street just to make a few bucks, Meyer says this might qualify as abuse of the system, and such Haystackers could be kicked off Haystack.
“We have an easy way for Haystackers to report what they believe is abuse of the system,” he says.
As for the money-making aspect, Meyer says he envisions Haystackers having essentially a neutral balance: they offer and accept spaces at the same rate. Haystackers only have the option of requesting a check or direct deposit into their bank account if they have more than $10 a month in it.
The only way Haystackers can make more than $2.25 per exchange is through the app’s “Make Me Move” feature.
“It’s for people who aren’t planning on leaving their space, but will move for a certain dollar amount,” says Meyer. “The app is designed so that the amount is determined by the user, but can’t exceed $25.”
Meyer acknowledged that Haystackers from outside the area might use the app to snag premium free parking spaces (say, for Ravens or O’s games or weekends in Fell’s Point or Canton) for cash, but says such behavior is not his intent.
App came out of the blue
Some Cantonites say they feel blindsided by Haystack and wish the community had been informed ahead of time before the media blitz.
“I am troubled by the way Haystack was introduced to our communities. Citizens should have had a chance to voice their input and concerns before it was thrown at us without any advanced notice,” says Canton resident Mike Beczkowski. “For many of us, parking in Canton is a very sensitive and passionate issue. Will there be any fights between neighbors and users of the Haystack over ‘free parking’?
“Finally, it’s also an equity issue. We are still in an economic recession right now. The poor, elderly and unemployed are not going to have resources to afford ‘free parking,’” he added.
Meyer says that plenty of Canton residents consulted on developing the app, but the Canton Community Association was not given a head’s up to inform the community at large.
Sean Flanagan, president of the CCA since February, knew nothing about Haystack’s development but was cautiously optimistic about its potential.
“Personally, I think it is a fantastic idea and a testament to the commitment by Canton neighbors to solve neighborhood issues,” Flanagan says.
Meyer admits he didn’t meet with any experts on Baltimore City parking, or city government representatives, before creating the app, either.
Peter Little, executive director of the Parking Authority of Baltimore City, learned about the app only recently and says he has not yet formed an opinion.
“I don’t know what to think. On the one hand, it could be part of a parking solution, matching demand with supply,” he said. “It could also be abused and harmful.”
Little says his office monitors parking apps in use around the county and has never seen anything quite like Haystack.
He adds that $3 per space is relatively modest fee, but “are enough people willing to pay it? I don’t know.”
Little says he was not aware of Haystack’s “Make Me Move” option when the Guide spoke with him.
Canton neighbors, who have been discussing the app on Facebook, are variously negative, ambivalent, and amused.
Some, like David Wagner, are making light of Haystack by coming up with names for their own cheeky Haystack-inspired app satires. Wagner’s is called RollintheHayStack and combines parking and dating.
Others, like Vinson, are pretty negative about the app’s future.
“The trouble with parking in Canton is not that you can’t find an open spot, it is that there are more cars than parking places,” he posted on Facebook. “I think this app will cause consternation and conflict in our neighborhood. I hope this app is a quickly passing fad, and I encourage my neighbors not to join it.”
Meyer has only lived in Canton for a year and says he has no knowledge of Canton’s contentious history with residential permit parking. Nor is he aware that Canton lost its residential permit parking area, Area 43, last year–or that the neighborhood is in its first year of a five-year moratorium on new residential permit parking areas, established by City Councilman Jim Kraft.
Kraft was contacted for this story but did not reply to the Guide’s requests for comment.
City Councilman William Cole, however, who represents the 11th District, which includes Federal Hill, a neighborhood that is near both stadiums and has a large entertainment district, says he’s still learning about Haystack and has no formal position, but does have some concerns.
“I am a bit worried about the possibility of on-street conflicts and also have concerns that this will become a bit of a virtual lawn chair,” he says.
“That said, I’m willing to take a wait-and-see approach on what is clearly an entrepreneurial effort at resolving a decades-old problem of too many cars and not enough spaces,” Cole adds.
Little, from the Parking Authority, has a similar outlook. He says it’s great that residents are coming up with parking solutions, but only time will tell.
“We’ve seen parking apps come and go. It could be helpful, harmful, or neither. We’ll be keeping a close eye on it,” he says.
On one level, the city seems to support the app, as Emerging Technology Centers, a nonprofit tech and start-up incubator, announced on their Facebook page that Haystack was moving into their facility at 101 N. Haven St. ETC provides infrastructure and office space at below-market rates, as well as, per their Facebook page, “shared basic services and equipment, tech support, and on-site management.”
ETC is a venture of the Baltimore Development Corporation, which is a nonprofit corporation contracted by the City of Baltimore to provide economic development services.
Haystack for Android is tentatively scheduled to go live June 13.
by Danielle Sweeney