Driving around in circles looking for parking is so 1935 – the year Oklahoma City installed the world's first parking meter.

Parking's waste of gas, time and space has recently inspired a host of phone applications to help people find spots more quickly, or even sublet their empty residential spaces. Though handy, the apps are a response to widespread parking mismanagement, says parking guru Donald Shoup, a University of California, Los Angeles urban planning professor.

Shoup thinks the road to polluted, unpleasant neighborhoods is paved with mispriced parking. Even in techy, bike-friendly Palo Alto, Calif., free street parking is still the norm, and demand for it creates parking shortages and traffic congestion. Plus, residential developers must provide a minimum number of off-street spaces. These commonly used quotas create sprawling seas of pavement that help make parking the single largest urban land use.

But technology can help save paradise from being paved. In San Francisco, it's replacing fixed parking fees. Instead, 7,000 downtown curb spaces conceal hockey puck-like sensors that detect high or low use, adjusting prices to keep a couple spaces free on each block and thereby reduce cruising.

Meanwhile, cities like Seattle and Boise are beginning to shun parking quotas, and Ventura, Calif., Houston, and Washington, D.C., are making pricing reforms. Improving parking management, Shoup says, is the "greatest opportunity to improve life in American cities."