5 Great U.S. City Parking Apps

The next generation of parking technology does much more than just locate available spots

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screenshot of parkpgh.org

There's no shortage of smart phone apps that aim to help you locate a parking spot in the city, but finding a good one can seem like it requires an app of its own. Many newer apps incorporate real-time data to locate available spaces and pricing information, but as parking apps continue to evolve these elements will seem more standard than spectacular. The next-generation parking app will go beyond mere availability to include features like reservations, open-space predictions, and flexible pricing. Here are five standout apps (or apps in progress) that offer glimpses into the future of smarter parking.

ParkPGH (Pittsburgh)

ParkPGH takes the basic functions of a parking app and adds a dash of clairvoyance. Its core task is to scan roughly 5,300 spaces in ten lots in downtown Pittsburgh, a quarter of all garage parking in the area, and update space availability every 30 seconds. But ParkPGH also taps a unique algorithm — developed by Robert Hampshire of Carnegie Mellon University — that considers historical parking data and current events, such as concerts, to predict what the parking situation will be in the future. The result is the country's "first predictive parking app," according to the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, which recognized the technological advances of ParkPGH with an award in early October.

SFpark (San Francisco)

Boosted by a $19 million federal grant, the intricate SFpark program launched this past spring. Using sensors spread across eight city neighborhoods, SFpark reviews the availability and pricing of some 18,500 street and garage spots and feeds this information to drivers in real time (primarily through the app, but also, more recently, through text message as well). But what makes SFpark so unique is its city-sponsored ability to adjust the cost of a spot to meet demand: rates fall on streets with a number of open spots, for instance, while they rise on packed blocks. Sometimes that means paying more for parking, but it also means fewer cars circling for a spot, and therefore less congestion in downtown San Francisco. 

Parking Auction (Manhattan)

George Costanza refused to pay for parking on the Upper West Side — "It's like going to a prostitute," he said. "Why should I pay, when if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?" — but other neighborhood residents are more, let's say flexible with their wallets. That's the idea behind Parking Auction, an entirely new direction in smart parking that debuted in early August in Costanza's old haunt. The app is essentially a parking-space marketplace: drivers ready to leave their street spot name a price through Parking Auction, and those searching for a space respond with a bid. "It's like following the guy with the keys in his hand, but for a fee," writes Wired's Autopia. The program's legality has been questioned, but its founders maintain that drivers are selling information, not the city space itself.

Smart Parking (Boston)

Parking in the Hub will get easier when this app, still under development by researchers at Boston University, finally gets off the ground. While it may have a generic working name, the program has a number of complex wrinkles that could separate it from the field. The system provides drivers with the location and price of a nearby spot, upgrades the space as necessary during the ride, and even lets users reserve a spot (in a garage, at least). The reserved spot is indicated by an overhead light fixture: when the right driver pulls in, the light changes color; if another driver tries to steal the space an alarm sounds. The developers emphasized space reservation because they worry apps that only provide parking availability might actually make street congestion worse, as drivers all funnel toward an open space at once.

Parker (various cities; primarily Los Angeles)

Like Boston's model, the Parker app also has a reservations function that helps drivers secure a spot in a facility up to two months in advance. But Parker has distinguished itself from local smart-parking apps by emerging as a potentially national program. The app, developed by Streetline, offers real-time availability in parts of D.C., New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Utah — and will soon add basic parking facility information for 30 more cities across the United States — though its chief stage is car-centric Los Angeles. Its sensors currently scout Hollywood and Studio City, and it's reportedly poised to expand into downtown Los Angeles when the city's multi-million dollar ExpressPark program launches next spring. Streetline also recently partnered with IBM to produce a smart-parking starter kit that any city can use to implement its own program.

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