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Are we there yet? Not when it comes to parking apps

Austin parking problems aren't solved by the 'Parking In Motion' app

Omar L. Gallaga
ogallaga@statesman.com

Have I got the perfect smartphone app for Austinites.

As you circle around the downtown area searching for parking, this app takes care of you. You might be trying to avoid surprise parades, protests, construction roadblocks and, oh hey, falling glass panels from hotels, but your phone busily scopes out a place to park.

Using GPS location data and continually updated online information, it guides you to the perfect unoccupied parking space, reserving your spot and automatically billing you for a predetermined amount of time, say two hours if you're having a coffee date at Jo's.

You wouldn't need to fumble with the screen while driving; it would update you with clear, unobtrusive voice prompts. "Your parking spot is ready," it would say. "Just turn right at the Frost Bank Tower."

Unfortunately, that app doesn't currently exist.

Instead, I tried out the next best thing, "Parking In Motion," a free app available for iOS devices such as the Apple iPhone. Android and BlackBerry phone versions are in the works.

"PIM," for short, falls into the category of "great start, needs work," at least in Austin. It promises to guide you to "find, reserve and pay for parking in the U.S., Canada and Europe." But here in town, it's really just a directory of parking surfaces and garages. In my testing, I found no way to reserve or pay for parking here. The company says Austin reserved parking and more street parking options will be added in a future update.

Apart from that, the app is still useful, especially for being free. If you need a simple GPS-enabled map of parking availability downtown (not including street parking), the app can track your location and, with a "Park Me" button, give you clear directions to the nearest pay-parking structure. You can set your itinerary in advance and you can opt for a Google Street View visual if you need physical landmarks rather than a map view.

"PIM" can display parking rates and offers the option to add information to the parking lot or garage's description.

The first time I used "PIM," I tried to find parking near Einstein Bros. Bagels at 12th Street and Lamar Boulevard around lunchtime on a Thursday. I love bagels, and this location always gives me problems because it shares a lot with reserved spaces for Castle Hill Fitness.

I pulled over near 12th Street and activated the app. "PIM" directed me to a lot two blocks away and provided a helpful arrow for the garage entrance. Unfortunately, that entrance was blocked with a "DO NOT ENTER" sign. There was also no pricing info for the garage in the app.

Nearby, there were plenty of free spaces at the Austin BMX and Skate Park. I parked there, pretended I didn't secretly want to play hooky and go skateboarding and then walked to Einstein Bros.

One morning a few days later, I got similar results around Seventh and Red River streets. There were plenty of nearby lots, but no way to reserve a space. I drove into East Austin and found the app to be useless there, as it is in South and Central Austin.

"PIM" likely will improve and increase its coverage, and help might be on the way with competing apps. In San Francisco, an app called "SFPark" uses information from 7,000 parking meters and 12,250 garage spots to give real-time parking information, according to The New York Times.

Los Angeles has created a system in parts of Hollywood for an app called "Parker," by a company called Streetline, that is expected to also work in parts of New York City and Fort Worth, The Times said.

It's not hard to imagine that a smarter way to park might hit Austin at some point. But for now, it's hot outside, downtown is often a parking mess and we're not living in the future just yet.

ogallaga@statesman.com; 445-3672