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Santa Monica-based ParkMe allows motorists to locate parking places in more than 30,000 worldwide locations, including San Jose and other nearby municipalities. (ParkMe photo)

Even though they may not quite be ready for prime time, the growing family of humble parking apps for smartphones is destined to do great things for all of us in these increasingly parking-challenged times.

Sure, they've got their share of glitches, like software breakdowns that can result in a big fat parking ticket when you get back to your car. And yes, they've not yet been deployed in enough locations to truly become a dependable tool when we need them the most.

But parking apps like Parkmobile, which you can use to quickly pay for street parking in scattered cities around the Bay Area, and Santa Monica-based ParkMe, which helps you find and even reserve spots in lots and garages in San Jose, are clearly the wave of the future. More and more municipalities are installing Web-enabled meters. Others are providing their meter readers with handheld devices, allowing them to check the "cloud" to see if a car's legally parked.

"Parking is emerging as a huge mobile-commerce business,'' says Tina Dyer, spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Parkmobile. "And with car manufacturers introducing more and more Internet-equipped 'connected vehicles,' your cellphone will be synced to your dashboard and you'll be able to pay for parking by only using your voice.''

We drove around the Bay Area to test-park a few of the apps out there. While we used an iPhone, most are also available on Android devices. The big take-away: there simply isn't enough of this great technology at work, even here in tech-savvy Bay Area.

Parkmobile


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Making good on its slogan "Parking Made Simple,'' this app helps you find parking and feed your meter in Oakland, Sausalito and other cities. It's a snap: you pull up to a meter marked with the Parkmobile sign; call up your app, which already has the credit card and vehicle information you'd registered; punch in the meter's Parkmobile locator number; choose the time you want, and you're done.

The app gives you a heads-up via text when your meter's about to expire, a great feature when you're stuck in your doctor's office four blocks from your car. You can then extend your time, virtually feeding your meter from the waiting room.

It's not perfect, though, as Palo Alto publicist Carissa Ashman found out when she used Parkmobile near Oakland's Jack London Square, only to find a ticket when she returned to her car. She had tried to download the app while rushing to a business meeting and thinks some of her information was garbled. "Unfortunately, it didn't process my credit card number properly so even though I thought I'd paid for parking, I really hadn't.''

Despite the $68 ticket, Ashman says Parkmobile has worked wonderfully for her since she entered the correct data. "It's really nice to be able to add more time, even though you're not anywhere near the meter,'' she said

Parkmobile, which started in 2008 and has expanded to 35 states, is chock-full of cool features, including an interactive map to help you find meters and even EV charging stations, a handy history of your past parking sessions and a "Find My Car" tool lets your pin your location on the map.

ParkMe

You're late for a concert in downtown San Jose and don't have time to hunt for a spot. You fire up the ParkMe app and -- voilà! -- you've immediately got the lay of the land, with icons showing lots and garages nearby. The icons are color coded, making it easy to quickly locate the least, middle and most expensive hourly rates.

Tap on the Second & Carlos Street structure and everything you could possibly want to know about this place is at your fingertips -- hourly, evening and weekend rates, validation specials from the Tech Museum and theaters, hours of operation, even Zipcar availability.

Another button lets you lock in a parking place in advance, which you can also do on ParkMe's website. Tap on Ten Almaden Parking Facility and then Reserve a Spot. After you arrive, each 15 minutes will run you $1.25. You enter your arrival and departure times, say, for later in the evening, and you're set. When you leave, the attendant will confirm your payment on his computer and buzz you through.

"Love using this parking garage for the Sharks games,'' one user wrote on the website. "Close to SAP, covered parking, safe, and friendly staff!''

PayByPhone

This app, which is widely available in traffic-clogged cities from San Francisco to Paris, is similar to Parkmobile, though I found its user interface a bit less intuitive. While Parkmobile's map shows you available parking places, PayByPhone's map was, well, just a map. I pulled up to a marked meter on San Francisco's Van Ness Avenue, punched in the 8-digit location number and entered 30 minutes. At that point, the app asked me for the security code on my registered credit card, an annoying extra step that made little sense, especially because Parkmobile didn't require me to jump through the same hoop. PayByPhone spokesman Chris Morisawa said it was added at the request of San Francisco officials, and that it's not required at all of Parkmobile's meters in other cities.

ParkNow

Driving around the East Bay, I tested ParkNow, whose logo reads "Carry Your Parking Spot With You.'' Call up the app and several blue markers pop up to reveal parking options from Monterey (the box features a sea otter) to Oakland (yup, an oak leaf) and even the airports of that city and its cross-bay neighbor.

I click on a smaller blue box with $10 in it and up pops Propark Webster, and I click Confirm Now to lock in a spot for the next three hours. Promising to make the parking "fun, easy and hassle-free,'' ParkNow also offers users bonuses, including parking discounts, special coupons, and even carwashes.

Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc

parking apps
Here are some of the apps we reviewed:
Parkmobile: The app helps users find and pay for on- and off-street parking in 400 cities around the world, including several in the Bay Area.
ParkMe: Santa Monica-based provider of parking information and reservations, allows motorists to locate parking places in more than 30,000 worldwide locations, including San Jose and other nearby municipalities.
PayByPhone: The Vancouver-based company claims to be North America's leading provider of mobile payments in the parking industry, and its app helps track down parking spots in over 180 cities that include London, Miami, San Francisco and Paris.
ParkNow: San Francisco-based startup lets drivers in and around San Francisco book parking places in advance, online or with the mobile app.
Source: Mercury News reporting