Pain-free parking apps give you one less thing to whine about

In addition to being a rather chaotic city to drive in, San Francisco can be a total pain in the ass to park in. Don’t believe it? If you need an example of exactly how premium a price the city's resident will pay for a solid spot, consider the parking space that recently sold for a reported $82,000. But as gross as that sounds it's not even a record—earlier this year, two tandem parking spots were recently auctioned off in Boston for $560,000. That would pay for over 7,567 parking tickets in San Francisco, which has the highest parking ticket fees in the country ($74 for a downtown violation).

Of course, the only way you'll get a ticket is if you can't find a nice, legal, available space. That's easier said than done—but it's also pretty easily done with the help of these handy parking apps for iOS and Android. And unlike a coveted big-city parking space, most of them are even free.

Park Circa—iOS, Android, Windows Phone 8 (Free)

Check in to easy parking with Park Circa.

An app with a social component, Park Circa is designed to connect those who have under-used neighborhood spots with those who are really, really over-circling the same 10 blocks trying to find a spot after 6:30. A little bit Airbnb, a little bit Foursquare, Park Circa allows owners of parking spaces to register their spot, and the times it’s free, on the site and app.

People who want to park there can use the app (or the web browser) to find a spot, and then check in—for a small fee of course. The system is in private beta at the moment, so it’s only available in pretty limited areas. In San Francisco, for example, it only finds results in sections of the Inner Sunset, Cole Valley, the Haight, and North Beach. Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, Sacramento all also show results, and there are scattered results through Texas, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New York, Washington, Virginia, Massachusetts and more.

Those are some lucky locations—the app is nicely designed. Once you're registered, Park Circa uses your phone's GPS to locate available spots. You can peruse a list of results or plot them on a map, and details on each spot include a photo, the type (for example, a carport or driveway), maximum size, fees, and a description. If one of them is to your liking you just tap the “Check In” button. The app will tell you how long the space is available for, how much the owner charges to park there (which may vary depending day or time), and will transfer the funds from your account to the owner's account automatically when you return to “Check Out.” You'll rack up some steep penalties if you overstay your welcome, however.

ParkMe—iOS, Android (Free)

Pull up ParkMe to find open spaces in nearby public lots and open metered spaces on city streets. The app generously covers more than 500 cities around the world, so it’s likely worth the download if you’re living anywhere near Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Austin, Miami, New Orleans, Phoenix, Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, Philly, Boston, or any of 487 other cities.

ParkMe not only shows you public spots, but also overlays fee information right on the map, so you know which spot is closest—and which is cheapest. It does the same thing for metered spaces on city streets, which are indicated with a square pop-up bubble (as opposed to the traditional round bubbles used for the lots). The results are even color-coded to show how easy it is to park in that location, with green being available, orange being partially occupied (and percentage below a parking lot's result lets you know just how full it is at the moment), and red being unavailable.

Results for street parking provide details on the location, times, and fees involved, and results for public lots contain additional details on rates, special pricing, hours of operation, payment options, and a phone number (if available). You can also share a result via SMS, email, or Twitter; copy the address; or open it in the Maps app.

While you can’t pay for your parking in-app, ParkMe does offer up other features such as allowing you to find parking results for a car, motorcycle, or oversized vehicle, choosing a preference between closer or cheaper parking, a parking timer feature to let you know when your time is up, and a Mark My Car feature to remind you exactly where you’ve parked. You can also filter the results to exclude lots or street parking and customize the duration of time you need parking for. It gets bonus points for showing results all over a city—not just in heavily populated downtown areas.

SFPark—iOS, Android (Free)

SFPark is part of the cities pilot program.

SFPark is noteworthy because it’s the first of its kind—developed by the Department of Transportation’s Urban Partnership Program and established by the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority, SFPark is a parking management system that covers 7,000 metered spaces and 12,250 spots in city-owned parking garages. It uses parking sensors installed in each space to provide real-time data about occupancy levels at garages and at metered spots on the city streets.

So far, the program has covered eight pilot areas in the city: the Marina, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Fillmore, the Financial District, Civic Center, Hayes Valley, South of Market, and the Mission—all areas that are severely impacted by parking shortages.

The app itself is fairly straightforward: it displays results on a map, with street results indicated by colored lines, and parking garages by pinpoint letter P’s. Tapping on any result brings up more data—in the case of street parking, it will tell you how many spaces are estimated available at that location, rates for each time of day, and street sweeping info. In the case of lots, it will display the estimated number of spaces in addition to the address, hours of operation, special pricing info (for events, different vehicle sizes, and peak hours), and the phone number if available. Be warned, you will have to zoom into each neighborhood to make sense of the results, as they appear as a mess of colored dots if you’re zoomed out too far.

The results are color coded (a key appears in the top navigation) and can be toggled between displaying available spots, or showing results according to price. Other than a Refresh button, and a More Info icon, that’s it—short, sweet, and to the point. While the technology involved is pretty cool, we wouldn’t mind seeing a few more features thrown in once the program progresses.

BestParking—iOS, Android (Free)

BestParking's simple search screen.

Much like the other apps here, Best Parking provides information on parking in lots and garages (but not streets) in 100 North American cities—and 115 airports as well. Another standout aspect: Because BestParking prides itself on providing the most accurate data of any parking app, it offers a $5 Starbucks eGift card to users who report inaccurate information.

It has an impressive number of results—pulling too far back in the map for downtown San Francisco produced a mess of results in a full array of colors indicating the lowest to highest rates, with yellow indicating the lowest rate, red the highest, and gray indicating the spot is unavailable. Prices are also overlaid onto the result pins so you can see if there’s a better deal around the next block.

You can't argue with the results.

The app interface itself is a bit plain, opening to a search page where you can use drop-down menus to select city or airport; then specific your location by neighborhood, address, attraction, or GPS; toggle between daily or monthly results; then select time of arrival and departure; and hit search. The results are shown on a map, and tapping on one produces information on the exact address, hours of operation, phone number, rate estimate, parking types (indoor garage, self park), rules (for example, no vehicles over 6'6"), and payment options.

An optional in-app upgrade lets you access additional features such as photos, navigation (unfortunately via Apple Maps), horizontal orientation, vehicle tracking in current location searches, and Pioneer AppRadio support—but they’re not really necessary. Even with just the basic features, it’s still a lot better than having your passenger yell “Oh! That was one right back there!”

Parkopedia—iOS, Android, Windows Phone 8 ($2, Free, $2.50, respectively)

Windows users, I haven’t forgotten about you or your candy-colorful Nokia and HTC handsets! Parkopedia, intended to be the parking spot version of Wikipedia, is available for all three smartphone OSes. Parkopedia’s goal is to map and list every parking space in the world, so…they’re going to be pretty busy for a while.

So far, they’ve managed to cover more than 25 million spaces in 28 countries, thanks at least in part to information contributed from drivers. If you’re somehow in an area that isn’t yet covered, they encourage you to send an email so they can keep you updated on their progress—or take matters into your own hands and add the space yourself by uploading a photo of a parking sign or price list.

Upon opening the app, you’re greeted with a simple search bar where you can enter in your location (or leave blank to default to your current location), and a big, red Find Parking button. Results appear in the Recents tab, in list form. Along the top navigation bar are options for Filter and Map view; results can be filtered by lots vs street parking, toggling to display height restrictions, and features such as electric car charging, covered, motorcycle spaces, disabled spaces, free, park and ride, and accepts credit cards.

Results in list form display the name of the lot or street location as well as the distance from you, the rate, and a rating out of five stars. Tapping on a result, either in list or in map view, will take you to a profile page for that result. Information in each parking profile page includes address, directions, a photo, and a phone number in addition to information on type of parking, features, payment options, number of spaces, hours of operation, and pricing info.

Parking Panda—iOS, Android (Free)

If you’d prefer to pay for parking within an app as well, give Parking Panda a shot—the app works with over 1.3 million parking spaces in over 12,000 garages, lots, and private spaces in 73 cities. So…that’s a lot of coverage.

You can use the app to find, reserve, and pay for parking in real time, something that's particularly handy for big events, like concerts and sports. This will, of course, require you to input your credit card information, but Parking Panda assures customers their parking purchases are safely and securely handled through the app. Additionally, the app will allow you to access confirmation of your spot, which you can use to show to parking attendants on your way out of the garage.

It works like this: Upon opening the app you’re presented with a search screen. At the top is a blue banner you can tap to default to parking near your GPS location, below that is a search box you can use to enter in other locations. There are fields to enter in a start and end date, but the app only offers two kinds of parking: daily or monthly. That's not really convenient if you’re looking for hourly parking, but since there are several other apps that handle that, it seems fair that one should focus on longer-term needs.

Once you’ve selected your criteria, simply tap the orange Search button and you’re treated to a spinning panda icon while you wait for your results to load. Results appear on the map as blue bubbles, with price information overlaid onto them. You can toggle between a list view and a map view using the buttons on the top navigation bar; the bottom nav has tabs for Search, Reservations, and Account. Account holds your name, email, phone number, password, and credit card information.

Tapping on a result displays a close-up of its location on a map, the address, the distance from you, as well as information about the fees, hours of operation, directions, and photos. Some of the results here don’t seem to have the tabs for Hours or Photos filled out; sometimes that information appears on the main details page. I’ll be honest, I would have liked to see more complete and organized information here. Still, it’s got to feel good to be able to present your confirmation on your phone at the gate and get waved through like a rock star.

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