Can't Find Parking? There's an App for That

September 9th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

New app in San Francisco shows drivers vacant spots in real-time.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

What’s your strategy for finding parking? Endlessly circling a crowded lot? Following a pedestrian to their car? Mastering parallel parking on bumper-to-bumper streets?

If a new iPhone app works as promised, drivers in San Francisco won’t be strategizing much longer. As part of a pilot project called SFpark, the City of San Francisco is testing a smartphone app that provides real-time information on available parking spaces around the city. The app will also inform drivers of vacant parking pricing, which will fluctuate based on demand. Pending its success, the SFpark concept could soon extend beyond San Francisco; the initiative is funded by a $19.8 million federal grant from the Department of Transportation.

According to the SFpark website, the app collects data from sensors in city-owned garages and on-street parking areas. When a spot becomes available, the information is uploaded in real-time to the SFpark data feed, which then updates spaces listed on the app and the SFpark website. The sensors are installed in more than 8,000 metered spaces and 12,000 city-owned garage spaces. So far, about 25,000 people have downloaded the app.

The success of SFpark relies on a revolutionary parking pricing structure that is meant to inspire behavior change in car-reliant San Franciscans.  The pricing program will adjust meter prices in an effort to entice drivers to run errands requiring a car during off-peak hours. It will also encourage parking in city lots and garages, instead of crowded streets. In an effort to appease drivers, the SFpark program is also updating parking meters to accept credit and debit cards and will offer longer time limits on meters, making it easier for drivers to avoid parking tickets. (You can see a demo of the app and pricing program here.)

The pricing system is expected to increase revenue from parking meters but decrease revenue from traffic tickets, according to a post in GOOD. But it remains unclear how high parking prices will go and consumers are wondering. As GOOD’s Andrew Priceput it, “Will there be $10 per hour parking?”

A bigger problem, however, could be a temptation among drivers to look at their smartphones instead of the road. Actor and producer Demetri Martin, who tested the new app for NPR said, “Every time you're at a pause or a stop you're looking at this trying to find where the next parking space is. It's hard to not want to keep looking at it.” NPR reported that city officials are downplaying the risk of taking drivers’ eyes off the road by encouraging users to look at the app before they start their engines.

Journalist Monique Soltani dismissed the app as catalyst for distracted driving, noting to The New York Timesthat in the digital age, multitasking drivers are the norm on the road. “We’re already looking at Google Maps and Facebook on the phone while we drive,” she said. “You’re always slightly distracted when you’re driving.”  According to the Times, officials in New York are urging drivers to pull over before using parking apps, “but so many drivers are now in the habit of texting or working the GPS, the chances of most people pulling over are pretty unrealistic.”

If the parking app came to your city, would you use it? Do you think the app is a useful tool or another dangerous distraction for drivers?