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Need a parking spot? Look online

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Drivers will soon be able to use their cell phones to search for parking spots online. (Andrew Goldberg/CNS)

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Drivers will soon be able to use their cell phones to search for parking spots online. (Andrew Goldberg/CNS)

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Cars are lowered into an underground vault at New York's first robotic parking garage. (Andrew Goldberg/CNS)

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Drivers sick of circling for spaces will soon be able to look online for high-tech help. (Andrew Goldberg/CNS)

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On parkly.net, a new site where frustrated drivers vent about parking, users are encouraged to embarrass poor parkers by leaving citations on their windshields. (Andrew Goldberg/CNS)

Sheila Sommerman squinted in the sunlight and studied the narrow street, her eyes darting back and forth like a quarterback reading a defense. She had been down this maddening road several times before, but now the pressure to park was mounting.

“West 71st Street is my lucky block,” she said. “Whenever I’m in the area, that’s where I go for a spot.”

Only minutes before the scheduled start of the show she had driven into Manhattan to see, Sommerman finally saw it: an ample opening in the line of cars along the sidewalk, a precious parking spot a mere half-block from the theater.

But just as she pulled up to it, a man stepped off the sidewalk and started waving her away.

“This space is taken,” said the spot squatter, who claimed he was reserving it for his wife.

“You can’t hold parking spaces for other people,” Sommerman shot back, before realizing the fight was futile and pulling away to start the process all over again.

In the urban jungle, where parking is always at a premium, the dreaded hunt for that elusive parking space may soon get a lot simpler. Several high-tech and Web-based services are poised to transform the way people park.

ParkWhiz.com, a Chicago-based company, is planning to launch an online, nationwide marketplace for unused private spots next month. SpotScout, based in Cambridge, Mass., is scheduled to launch a similar service this spring in New York, Boston and San Francisco, but it also plans to include information about public spots next year. And New York’s first fully automated robotic parking garage is opening its doors this week.

Aashish Dalal, the founder of ParkWhiz.com, said his site will function as a kind of online auction service for unused private parking spots.

“If I have a parking spot in my building or a driveway at my house, I can put that space up the way I would on eBay,” he said. “If I’m gone from nine to five, I can rent my space out to someone that needs it, charge them whatever I feel is appropriate and profit from that.”

Initially, users will have to surf for spots on their computers before driving to their destinations. But Dalal recognizes the need to locate parking on the run and says a cell-phone version of the online marketplace is already in the works.

“Ultimately, you could be on your cell phone driving to work or driving to a ballgame, and you could find out where the closest parking spot is,” he said.

But there’s already competition for this space.

Andrew Rollert, the founder of SpotScout.com, stressed that his company will be providing a mobile application when it launches this spring.

“I don’t know about you, but when I look for a parking space, I’m generally in my car,” he said.

Rollert said he decided to roll out the service in New York, Boston and San Francisco because of the range of parking options those cities offer.

“Manhattan is about 95 percent garages,” he said. “San Francisco has fewer garages than Manhattan, but it has a lot of private spaces that, during the days and nights, are actually empty because people are at work or they travel. And Boston is a mix of New York and San Francisco.”

In addition to allowing garages to list their current vacancies and enabling users to post their private spaces for rent, SpotScout also plans to publish information next year about on-street parking spots. Motorists parked anywhere in the city will be able to auction off their exact location and time of departure to other drivers who want to pay for such parking tips in order to avoid the hassle of hunting for a space on their own. The company will take a small cut of each transaction.

“What we allow people to do is not to sell a space,” said Rollert, “but to actually say if anyone wants the information about when I’m leaving this exact location, they can buy it from me.”

Beyond just helping people find spaces, the Web is also being used as a vehicle for venting about parking. On Parkly.net, a new site dedicated to “the frustrated driver and his struggle against bad parking,” users are encouraged to expose inept parkers by posting pictures of their poorly parked cars.

“I am incredibly anal when it comes to people who park badly,” said Jason Mixon, the 28-year-old software developer from Oklahoma who started the site. “I have always wanted a way to give bad parkers a piece of my mind without waiting for them in the parking lot where I’m sure I would get my butt kicked.”

Technology is not just changing the way people find parking. At New York City’s first fully automated robotic parking garage, it’s also changing how they park.

Automotion Parking System’s garage in Chinatown is a high-tech heaven for gadget lovers. Instead of handing their cars off to a parking attendant, drivers are directed by computer screen to a large gray box where they turn off their engines and leave their vehicles to an elaborate system of pallets and turntables.

“The laser beams will tell you when you’re in the right spot,” said Ari Milstein, the company director of planning, after pulling his navy Nissan Murano into the parking chamber to demonstrate.

An elevator deposits the car into the underground vault, where it is rotated and promptly placed in a slot appropriate for its size. The technology makes room for 67 vehicles in a space that would otherwise fit only 24 cars parked by attendants, Milstein said.

“There’s nothing you do more in your life than park,” he said. “We have the opportunity to reinvent the way the parking process is done.”

But Stan Kramer, a taxi driver in San Francisco, doesn’t like where things are headed. He is a parking purist who prides himself on finding prime spots for his Honda Element without any help from technology.

“It feels so good to find a spot right in front of where I’m going,” he said. “It’s an art.”

E-mail: asg2157@columbia.edu