Road Test of 4 Smartphone Apps for Finding Parking

Get Information on Parking Availability, Costs and More

Along with traffic, parking tops the list of driving aggravations in most metropolitan areas. Even if you know a city — and especially if you don't — getting that perfect parking spot sometimes takes a mix of impeccable timing and pure luck. Fortunately, smartphone-toting motorists will find multiple apps on the market that can provide an edge when looking for a spot, and prevent a ticket or tow when a meter or timer expires. We tested four such apps.

Mobile Parking App
Grade: B+
Price: $1.99
Pros: Broad feature set
Cons: No live parking data
Compatibility: iOS devices (3.1.2 or later)

Mobile Parking is actually a series of city-specific apps available for Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. (We tested the L.A. version of the app.) There's nothing slick about the interface — it's basically Google Maps with a menu option — but the app makes up for its simplicity with lots of functions.

Tapping the menu tab yields multiple options, including Garages, Meters, Metro Rail, Gas Stations, Find Car, Towed/Stolen, Parking Timer, Traffic and even a reservation capability (although you must first sign up with the app's reservation partner, Parking Carma). The main event here is the Garages, with hundreds listed. It included all the main ones in our L.A. neighborhood, for example.

With each listing in both map and list view, you get information such as address, maximum time allowed and the option to upload photos and write a review. The Meters option is a bit of a cop-out. It won't actually tell you what's available. You'll just get a color-coded map giving you general parking rates in various areas.

Mobile Parking App also includes a GPS-enabled "nearby" and "cheapest" fuel-search feature and live traffic data, courtesy of Bing Traffic. The "Find Car" option gives you a novel record-memo feature, a parking timer and another feature we hope you never have to use: the Towed/Stolen feature that can search police garages for your vehicle, and provides rates and contact info for local towing services.

Grade: A
Price: Free
Pros: Live street parking data
Cons: Limited to nine metro areas
Compatibility: iOS devices (3.0 or later)

Upon first launching Parker, you get a tutorial that walks you through the various features. These include an explanation of what powers the app (real-time sensors located at parking spaces and garages that feed Parker servers with data) and an overview of app icons. The icons get you to such functions as the ability to filter your parking searches by location (such as street or garage), payment method and find regions where Parker has sensors. In addition to Los Angeles, where we tested the app, other cities include Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Memphis, New York, Phoenix and San Francisco. There's information for New Jersey, too.

The app utilizes Google Maps with a common-sense overlay of functions and icons. To begin, you're given two primary options: Find or Park. The iPhone's GPS gets your location, and Find allows you to input an intersection, business or address to see what's available. Areas within a region, such as L.A.'s Hollywood, can have street-curb sensors, while other neighborhoods nearby might only show garages and lots.

After you've initiated a search, the app displays color-coded dots to signify availability: green (best), blue (OK) or red (keep driving). Garages and lots with Parker sensors also show within the dot the number of open spots available. Tapping on one of the dots opens an info box showing price and time limit for the spot. You can tap again on the same info box to get directions to the spot and an info screen displaying daily restrictions and payment methods, such as coins, credit cards and mobile credits.

When you find a spot and you're ready to park, tapping the Park icon opens another feature set. Here you can pay by mobile payments (select locations only), upload an image of the spot, and rate, comment and share information about it. You can also activate the app's timer feature once you park.

Parking Mate
Grade: B-
Price: Free
Pros: Slick interface, helpful parking alerts
Cons: Limited to parking reminders, no live searching
Compatibility: iOS devices (3.0 or later)

Parking Mate has a cool interface and sticks to the basics. But while other apps in this category can give you live street and garage parking updates and help you find cheap gas nearby, this one can't. It does feel like a bit of a downshift.

Parking Mate does a fine job as a parking reminder, however. It allows you to add a location with a tap and then set a timer and alert with a gaugelike slider. The parking screen also lets you add a photo, write a note and, with a tap of the "Add Location" icon, record and save such details as a parking spot's street rules and restrictions.

After you've saved several spots, the app will create an at-a-glance list of your go-to spots and their rules, such as time restrictions. We have to give a thumbs-up here, because once you've set locations with street rules, the app will tell you which spots are safe for parking and which have current or upcoming restrictions. Another nice element is the ability to easily share data like text notes, photos and street rules with other drivers. If the other driver has the app, the info will be imported right onto their device. The app also lets you customize alert settings. Options include bells, a horn and a rather annoying ta-da.

As a free parking reminder app, Parking Mate fills the bill. But if you want something with a broader feature set, you'll want to steer toward other apps in the category.

Primo Spot
Grade: A-
Price: $2.99
Pros: Easy to use; extensive tutorials
Cons: Limited coverage areas; no live parking data
Compatibility: iOS devices (3.1.3 or later) and Android

This app is comprehensive and easy to use, and it includes some pleasant surprises. Toggling between a list view and map view gives a quick, graphic way to assess your best options in an area. Tap the color-coded dots in the map view or descriptions in list view to get information such as location (including side of street), parking restrictions and such regulations as street-cleaning hours. When you've found your spot, touch the "Park Me Here" icon and the app uses Google Maps to lead you to it.

Tapping on the tab at the bottom of the screen brings up three options: On Street, Garage/Lots and Bike Racks. The app is noteworthy here for its depth of information. For instance, filtering for Garage/Lots brought up results in New York that included the address, hourly to monthly pricing, hours and even user-uploaded images. The list view also provides a quick price comparison of various garages and lots. You can remember where you parked by tapping a spot on the map or via an "At My Current Location" option. You can also add notes, a reminder timer and even a picture.

If at any point you get confused or want to learn more, hitting the "Primo Spot" logo takes you to an in-depth Help menu that includes everything from tutorials on each function to available coverage areas. One downside: The app is limited to Boston, New York and Seattle. Another missing feature is that it doesn't provide live parking data, as do the best apps in this bunch.

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