Walking is good for you, but sometimes you need do need to park as close as you can to your destination: Heavy luggage. Shopping bags. Rainy days.

Even if you see parking far away as a way to help you hit 10,000 steps (although there's no science behind the 10,000 step goal), sometimes you want the best possible parking spot.

Turns out there's a hack for that: Science says be optimistic... but not too optimistic.

Researchers placed parking strategies into three categories:

  1. Meek: People who park at the first available spot; think of them as the "better safe than sorry" group.
  2. Prudent: People who see an open spot, cruise along a little farther in hopes of finding something better... then backtrack to the open spot.
  3. Optimistic: People who drive right to whatever would be considered the "best" spot in hopes it is open... and then backtrack until they find the closest available spot.

Since I hate backtracking, I skew just slightly to the right of meek.

But while the meek may inherit the earth, the researchers are dismissive of us as parking strategists.

"The meek driver wastes no time looking for a parking spot," they write, "and just parks at the first available spot that is behind the most distant parked car. This strategy is risibly inefficient; many good parking spots are unfilled and most cars are parked far from the target."

They're more approving of optimistic people. "Even though the prudent strategy does not allow the driver to take advantage of the presence of many prime parking spots close to the target," they write, "the backtracking that must always occur in the optimistic strategy outweighs the benefit by typically parking closer to the target." Which is why I usually just snag the first open spot I see.

So who wins the "find the best parking spot" game?

Prudent people, whose approach often results in a great parking spot while also wasting the least time hunting for that spot. "A newly arriving car only penetrates to the first contiguous vacancy cluster." they write. "Thus parking spots that are close to the target are 'screened' by more distant spots... (which means) the density of open spots near the target are likely to be high."

All of which means the best option is to take a quick shot at finding a better parking spot, especially when returning to the first open spot is relatively easy.

But that doesn't mean the prudent approach is always best. 

If you're trying to find a place to park in Manhattan and bypassing an open spot in hopes of finding a better one means circling the block to return to the first one... take the spot you know you can get. Or other factors might be involved, like parking near a lot exit so you get out quicker after a game, concert, etc. 

And for the prudent strategy to work, you'll also have to overcome recency (recall) bias. The first time I tried following the researcher's advice I wound up having to park a lot farther away; better spots weren't available, and the spot I bypassed was taken by the time I backtracked. "So much for that," I thought, and vowed to go back to my meek ways.

The same is true if you settle for the prudent approach and then trudge by an awesome open spot.

But as with most things, one data point isn't enough; the prudent strategy averages out to be better. Sometimes it won't work and you'll have to backtrack. Sometimes it will. Sometimes it will work really well.

The researchers concluded that following a prudent strategy pays off 89 percent of the time.

Reason enough to abandon my meek ways. 

Published on: Sep 29, 2019
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