For plenty of drivers in San Francisco the word p-a-r-k is a four letter word. That’s why a band of odd bedfellows — politicians, computer programmers and federal highway officials — came together to introduce the first app that helps users find parking spots in San Francisco, or any city in the world for that matter.

On the face of it, the SFpark app is a beautiful thing. A standard Google map pops-up color coded with red and blue bubbles that indicate public parking both on the street and in garages.

You can even toggle between a parking search based on availability and one based on price. The latter will become more important in coming months as the city rolls out dynamic pricing for parking spots, another element of the smart parking meters that are an important part of the system.

SFpark Overview from SFpark on Vimeo.

San Francisco officials are hoping to lure drivers out of some of the most congested areas and spread out the parking load by making spots more and less expensive based on demand.

Ben Davis, chief creative officer at Words Pictures Ideas who worked on the project, says in the next two to four months drivers could see prices move up or down 50 cents an hour depending on how much of a parking draw an area is.

I gave the pilot a test drive and have to deliver a mixed review. One of the coveted spots it found for me, turned out to be vacant because it was blocked off for construction. For another, it’s hard to use the app on your own while driving. If I had a passenger who could navigate that would be great, but there is the whole distracted driving concern.

For its part, the app does warn you not to use it while driving, a warning screen pops up when you first go more than 10 mph. Although that made me worry about how the device is tracking my every tiny move, even knowing how fast I’m going.

But the good things are knowing the price of parking in various places and the exact addresses of garages. The information will ultimately be tied in with so that people can compare parking and driving conditions with public transit or biking.

The city is hailing this as an important step towards cutting greenhouse gasses – people will be circling less for parking if they can easily be guided towards the least congested zones.

Davis says he’s excited to see what kinds of apps others can make using the data. One idea San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee floated was that small businesses could post updates on the cheapest or most plentiful parking near their store.

And finally a bit of parking meter trivia courtesy of the mayor. In Chinese the word for parking meter means “A Lion Machine.” He said it’s an allusion to what a parking meter does: eat you and your money. He was quick to point out, though, that he meant the old school variety, not the new version the city is promoting today.

Right now the app is exclusively on iPhone, iPad and iPod, but an Android version is coming soon.

New App Helps You Find Parking in San Francisco; Watch Demonstration Video 22 April,2011Rachel Dornhelm


Rachel Dornhelm

Rachel Dornhelm has worked as a reporter, editor and producer in public radio for the last twelve years. She got her start in New York City at WNYC and went on to work with the national business program Marketplace, WBUR’s “On Point” and KQED News in San Francisco. Her work has been honored by the LA Press Club and the SF-Peninsula Press Club.

Rachel has a BA with honors in anthropology from Rice University and did graduate work at NYU.

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