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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Staying now in San Francisco and with the topic of cars, parking them can be one of the great frustrations of urban life. Motorists who circle endlessly searching for a place to park, waste gas, pollute the air and generally drive themselves crazy. So San Francisco is turning to technology.

As NPR's Richard Gonzales tells us, the city is testing a smartphone app that tells the driver both the location and cost of available parking places.

RICHARD GONZALES: Demetrius Martin is an actor and producer who recalls the stress of looking for work in San Francisco.

DEMETRIUS MARTIN: I had to learn the city under the duress of making it to an audition on time. You're probably going to have to park illegally and end up getting a ticket. That'll be your fee for the day.

GONZALES: Martin is in his car, holding an iPhone and launching a new app offered by the city. It gives a driver real-time information on a block-by-block basis, exactly where and when there are parking spaces available.

MARTIN: Zoom out a little bit.

GONZALES: What do the red dots mean?

MARTIN: The red dots basically mean extremely low availability.

GONZALES: And blocks marked in sky blue or darker blue mean there's higher availability. The application updates itself every 60 seconds, thanks to sensors installed at more than 8,000 parking metered spaces and more than 12,000 spaces in city-owned garages.

MARTIN: I like that they have price, you know, and availability because that's, in any metro area, that's another challenge you have to consider. The prices per 20 minutes, let alone per hour are so high that you kind of will lose your shirt.

GONZALES: Under this new system, parking meters prices are adjusted higher in areas with high demand. The idea is that higher prices will discourage drivers and push them to blocks where space is available. For now, rates can be changed only once a month.

This pricing structure and the parking app are part of a pilot project called SF Park, funded through a $20 million federal grant. Jay Primus is the Manager of SF Park.

JAY PRIMUS: One of the most exciting things about this project is that it's going to create an unprecedented data set, bringing together data from parking sensors, parking meters, citations, transit vehicles, sales tax. And truly a case where technology is allowing us to be much smarter about how we manage parking.

GONZALES: Thus far, about 25,000 people have downloaded the parking app. Other cities, such as Los Angeles and Fort Worth also have introduced smartphone parking apps. And Seattle is experimenting with demand based parking prices.

But San Francisco has the most comprehensive approach, says Donald Shoup, who teaches Urban Planning at UCLA.

DONALD SHOUP: San Francisco is by far the most sophisticated and the highest tech experiment with this. And I think if this works out in San Francisco with their adjustable prices, that every city on Earth will be copying it.

GONZALES: But before that happens, people will be watching to see how much of a distraction the smartphone app is to drivers who are supposed to keep their eyes on the road. Our driver, Demetrius Martin, confesses that problem is real.

MARTIN: So here we are. I'm trying to avoid looking at it. But every time you're at a pause or a stop, you're looking at this trying to find where the next parking place is. It's hard to not want to keep looking at it. And some people, it's a challenge. It's like it's an ego challenge and it's a game. You know?

GONZALES: Thus far, city officials are trying to downplay that risk saying of course they always encourage drivers to look at the app before they start driving, of course.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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