Baltimore Man's Plan To Fix Parking Problem Meets Opposition From Cities
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Urban life has many joys, but finding parking is not one of them. Steve Henn of our Planet Money podcast brings us a story of a man who had a plan to fix that problem. He thought it would reduce congestion and pollution. Instead, it brought him nothing but misery.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Eric Meyer came up with this idea because he lives in neighborhood in Baltimore where it is just impossible to park. There are lots and lots of people jammed up next to each other, and Eric has this tiny little row house.
ERIC MEYER: When I first saw it, I was a little taken aback by, you know, that it's narrow - but it's beautiful.
HENN: How narrow is narrow?
MEYER: I think it's about 11 feet wide.
HENN: 11 feet wide?
Eric's car, his old Jeep, is 15 feet long. So when he parks on the curb, his Jeep takes up more space than his house. So he came up with an idea for an app and it was simple. If you had a parking spot on a busy street and you were about to leave, you could sell it to someone who was looking. It created a financial incentive for people to free-up spots. Eric builds his app. It's easy to use. It shows you available spots on a map. And he calls it Haystack. The first night it goes live, 42 people bought and sold parking.
MEYER: I think we knew that night that we had something that worked and that actually helped solve something.
HENN: Parking is a big urban problem, something economists have thought a lot about. Donald Shoup at UCLA wrote an 800-page book about the evils of free parking. Free parking, he says, creates something called a tragedy of the commons. And the classic example comes from the Middle Ages, when people could graze animals on a common land for free. It was like free parking for sheep.
DONALD SHOUP: Since it was free to put animals on the common, it got overcrowded and the animals nibbled all the grass and their feet damaged the soil.
HENN: It was a disaster. And today, free parking, Shoup says, leads to congestion, pollution, wasted time. He says the solution is to put a price on parking, create a market. And that's what Eric Meyer's app did. But when you start selling something that's not yours, you can run into problems. We tried selling a public parking spot on the streets of Los Angeles. My colleague, Sonari Glinton, secured a rock star parking spot on Sunset Boulevard and then held up a bright pink sign saying will negotiate for cash.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Oh, car. Come on, Lexus. Oh, oh, come on, Hyundai, I know you want to save some money. Oh, no.
Would you be willing to negotiate with me for that parking space?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If I would have to pay you for that parking space, no. I would just go find something else. I find that rude. I would not pay you for a parking space.
GLINTON: Why not?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I would rather walk 10 blocks than pay you for a parking space. Why? What is this about? What is going on here?
HENN: And that is basically the reaction Eric got when he tried to take his app to Boston. There were angry letters in the newspaper. Pretty quickly, the city council introduces a bill to ban his app.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FRANK BAKER: What we're trying to do here today is to make sure that the city of Boston's assets remain the city of Boston's assets.
HENN: Council Member Frank Baker asks, you know, what's next? If you can sell public parking spots, why not park benches or bar stools? Eric Meyer rushes up there for the hearing. He tries to talk about the tragedy of the commons.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MEYER: Neighbors who are mercilessly circling the block can go ahead directly, efficiently to a spot, which by the way...
BAKER: I appreciate the editorializing.
MEYER: Which by the way, has - well, it isn't editorializing.
HENN: It doesn't go well. Boston bans Haystack unanimously. A couple weeks later, San Francisco banned it, then LA. Eric Meyer's idea was dead. So he heads back to his little house in Baltimore, sits down and writes a letter to his investors saying, you know, you're probably not going to get your money back.
MEYER: It was the most difficult letter that I've ever had to write, and I wrote it to all of our investors, which obviously included my mom and my dad, and my aunt and, you know, some of my - some great friends that I've had. I felt like personally I had let them down.
HENN: Eric still lives in that tiny little house. He's working for another start-up, but he is done with parking. Well, almost. Every night when he comes back late from work, he's stuck circling the block, looking for a free spot - a spot that just doesn't exist. Steve Henn, NPR News.
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