Instead of settling immediately, drivers should press on. The prudent driver proceeds to the first available gap between parked cars, parking at the leftmost space. If none exists, then they must backtrack to the meek position. Prudent parking, the authors contend, is the ideal approach because it (typically) wastes the least amount of time.

The third strategy—optimism—is the boldest, but also offers the greatest potential payoff. In this scenario, an optimistic driver continues all the way to their destination and doubles back to find the nearest spot. If they’re in a crowded lot, though, this can backfire and result in wasted time.

Krapivksy and Redner write, “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, the backtracking that must always occur in the optimistic strategy outweighs the benefit by typically parking closer to the target.”

Of course, their thought experiment has some limitations. For one, it doesn’t account for parking at a crowded stadium, where the rush to exit is often more time-consuming than initial parking. It also doesn’t consider autonomous vehicles, or the financial toll from dents suffered when parking an expensive car in close proximity to others.

Regardless, if you want to park smarter, you’ll be best served by a prudent approach.

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