How to Find the Best Parking Spot Every Time

Are you the one who parks in the first open space you find, or the one trying to find a spot closest to where you’re going? It turns out that both of these methods are ineffective ways to navigate the parking lot – and there is a mathematically better option.

As Jennifer Wellett explains in Ars Technica :

Paul Krapivsky of Boston University and Sidney Redner of the Santa Fe Institute decided to build their analysis around an idealized parking lot with one lane (semi-infinite line) and focused on three main parking strategies. A driver who adopts a “meek” strategy will take the first available seat, preferring to park as quickly as possible, even if there may be open spaces closer to the entrance. The driver using the “optimistic” strategy will go straight to the entrance and then backtrack to find the closest possible seat.

Finally, drivers implementing a “prudent” strategy will share the difference. They may not capture the first available spot, believing that there will be at least one more open spot a little closer to the entrance. Otherwise, they will return to the place where the humble driver would immediately have taken.

After performing the calculations, the two physicists came to the following conclusion:

  • Entering from the back of the parking lot and parking at the first visible point is ineffective because it requires a lot of walking.
  • Trying to find the best seat is ineffective because it takes a lot of driving time.
  • Driving towards the entrance, skipping any open spaces at the end of the lane, and parking in the first gap between cars minimize your driving and walking time.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a pictorial:

Why does this strategy work? Krapivsky and Redner explain this in terms of how molecules attach to microtubules, but here’s a version that we can all understand:

  • When you enter a parking lot (assuming you are approaching from behind), you pass several cars parked in the first spot you find.
  • You can drive up to the front of the parking lot and look for a better spot, but that wastes time.
  • Instead, look for the first open space between already parked cars. These are parking spots that are not considered by either “meek” or “optimistic” drivers, which means they are the most efficient option for a “cautious” driver.

Of course, these types of math problems don’t always translate well into the real world (and it’s worth noting that this particular model is a one-line parking lot, not the round or rectangular structures that are more common.). Sometimes you need the best seat because of the weather or because you or your passengers cannot walk long distances. Sometimes every parking space is full and the only way out is to go around the parking lot until something opens up. Sometimes you grab a spot in the first visible gap and pass a few of the best spots you could possibly get.

But if you’re looking for a quick parking strategy to save time walking, driving, and wondering if it’s better to park in the first available spot or round the lot to find the best one, this tip might work often enough to be worth it.

Updated 10/03/2019 at 3:30 pm: The original version of the article distorted the findings of Krapivsky and Redner, suggesting that drivers park in the first space between cars. We confirmed with Sidney Redner that intelligent drivers should park in the first space between cars, whether the space consists of one or more parking spaces.


Leave a Reply