Your space is waiting: Reserving a parking spot

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There's a new way to avoid spending half an hour circling the block, looking for a place to park.

Taking a cue from Web-based reservation systems used by restaurants, airlines and movie theaters, more companies and cities are offering services that let people reserve parking spaces online or by cellphone.

The services come as traffic is growing worse around the country and are meant to help ease the traffic tie-ups caused by drivers cruising for a parking spot on the street, where charges tend to be lower than garage rates. In downtown areas, based on studies from cities around the world, about 30 percent of traffic results from drivers searching for curbside parking spots, says Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. Besides using availability information or reservations to attract drivers to garages or lots, other efforts to reduce such tie-ups include raising the price of curbside parking or charging different rates during various times of the day.

As the economy improves, finding a spot is becoming more difficult and costlier in some cities where developers aren't required to add parking when they erect buildings.

MobileParking LLC has a service in which users call 800-PARK-123 to check parking availability and reserve spots at roughly 400 parking facilities in Baltimore, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, among other cities. The Bowie, Md., company plans a nationwide launch of the service later this year when reservations will be possible at roughly 1,000 facilities around the country.

XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc., which already provides real-time traffic information to navigation devices, demonstrated a potential service called "Dynamic Parking Information" last November. The percentage of spaces available at certain parking facilities was represented on navigation-system maps using colored icons. The actual number of spaces available also was depicted.

The data came from sensors in garages in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Detroit. XM is in talks with major parking companies about putting sensors in their garages and providing availability data.

This spring SpotScout Inc. plans to launch a parking-reservation service in Boston and New York through which people looking for spots would log on through Web-enabled cellphones to search for and reserve spots offered by garages and private individuals. The company plans to offer the service in West Coast cities later this year. Other cities, from Pittsburgh to Lincoln, Neb., and a number of airports, have launched online daily parking-reservation services in recent years.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system in California is testing availability and reservation technology from Acme Innovation Inc. at the Rockridge BART train station in Oakland, where commuters park their cars before taking the train into San Francisco. The "ParkingCarma" service broadcasts on signs along a nearby highway how many of a limited number of parking spots are open, based on sensor chips embedded in the lot, and allows commuters to check availability and reserve the spaces by phone or online. Early next year, BART plans to expand the technology to more stations.

Verda Alexander, a 40-year-old interior designer in Orinda, Calif., who commutes to San Francisco about twice a week, started reserving spaces online for the Rockridge lot about five months ago through ParkingCarma. If it weren't for the service, "I would probably not take BART," says Ms. Alexander, who used to drive into San Francisco because the commuter lot was often full as early as 8:15 a.m. "It's a comfort knowing I'm going to have a space waiting for me."

Many garage companies see allowing people to check availability and reserve spots ahead of time as a customer service that enables them to stand out in the fragmented and competitive parking industry, which the National Parking Association, a trade group, estimates at more than $20 billion. The group is promoting reservation firm MobileParking to its members. Still, some in the parking industry are skeptical about allowing drivers to reserve daily spots because parking garages generally are rarely full, except in busy areas like airports.

For consumers, reserving a space ahead of time can add to the already rising costs of parking. According to real-estate brokerage firm Colliers International, daily parking rates in the U.S. increased 7.1 percent in June 2005 from 12 months earlier, with an average median price of $14.04 a day, thanks to an improving economy and short supply as new developments are built with limited parking.

Most of the reservation services tack on an additional fee to daily rates. MobileParking, for instance, adds a $1.75 fee to daily rates. Reserving a BART spot through ParkingCarma in advance runs $4.50, compared with a $1 daily rate for those who drive into the lot and find spaces. BART is expanding another service to a number of stations that allows people to reserve single-day permits in advance online for $4 to $6.

In Lincoln, football fans going to University of Nebraska games can go online to reserve parking spaces at downtown parking facilities. The single-day spots cost about $1 more online than at the lot.

Most of the services are focused on garage and lot availability, but information about curbside parking also may not be that far off. One company, Streetline Networks Inc., puts sensors in street spots and a prototype project is under way in San Francisco.

The services are aimed largely at those who pay for daily spaces because they are driving downtown for, say, a dinner or doctor's appointment, and not at commuters who buy monthly passes.

Companies generally offer a reservation for one of a group of parking spots, rather than a specific space. Some of the services, such as Lincoln's or BART's, let users pay with a credit card online to reserve a spot and then print out a receipt to show in garages or a parking permit to put on their dashboard. Others, such as the SpotScout service, let users call or log on through a cellphone, give the address where they are going and receive a list of available spaces. Once a space is selected and paid for, users receive a text message with directions to the parking facility and a confirmation code they then show the attendant.

Among parking companies, Standard Parking Corp., which has close to 2,000 garages nationwide, says it is in talks with car makers and satellite providers and is at least a year away from providing real-time parking availability for its garages.

Separately, a number of car companies are adding features designed to making getting into a spot easier once you find one. When you shift into reverse, a new parking guidance feature available on DaimlerChrysler AG's 2007 Mercedes-Benz S-Class models displays a camera image of a parking spot on the dashboard screen with colored lines superimposed on it. The red, yellow and blue lines are designed to help direct you into a spot.

Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus says drivers of the 2007 Lexus LS 460 will be able to pull up to a parking spot, push a button and an "intelligent park assist system" will park the car with just a little braking. The Toyota Prius in Japan and Europe has a similar feature that allows a driver to select a target parking spot and then control the speed using the brake while the car steers itself.


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