Are we really in that much of a hurry to get inside the supermarket that backing into a parking place is completely out of the question? After waiting for prolonged periods of time in order to find the perfect parking space, to save us from walking an additional thirty paces?
After spending two weeks in Japan, I realized that “backward thinking” isn’t always a bad thing. Virtually everyone in Japan backs their cars into a parking place, and when asked why, the response I typically got was along the lines of, “It reduces the chances of an accident, and with modern backup assistance it’s super easy.”
So after getting back to the States and witnessing people pulling in front first willy-nilly, I did some research and discovered that NPR had done a feature on this phenomenon a while back. According to Social Science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, “research argues that the parking behavior of drivers may tell us something about the economic productivity of nations.”
Shaomin Li, a professor of international business at Old Dominion University in Virginia discovered that when parking in Taiwan, drivers typically reversed into their desired spots, which got him thinking: These people went to great length to never park head-in, which in a way is a kind of delayed gratification, because if you back in and pay the price at the beginning, you don’t have to wiggle your way out when it’s time to leave.
This is a very easy decision to make, and with modern backup cameras and parking assist systems, it is easier to reverse-park than ever. Yet Americans still largely refuse to do this, even though putting on their hazards and spending the extra fifteen seconds to back-in makes exiting that much safer and easier. But there’s more to it than just preference, as a lot of it has to do with longstanding cultural pressures; we tend to secretly fear the thought of someone else stealing a prized parking place.
Li took his parking findings to a whole new level with this project, and over time conducted an empirical study that analyzed the differences in how people park in countries like Brazil, China, India, Russia, and the United States. What he found was that after exclusively examining cars that were parked up against a barrier in parking lots (eliminating the “drive-thru” effect), in countries like China, over 88% of all cars observed were parked in reverse. In sharp contrast, less than 6% of all American drivers tended to back into a parking spot.
So where’s the correlation between parking behavior and economic growth rate? According to Vedantam, “if you buy the idea that reverse parking is a signal of delayed gratification, countries that seem to practice more of this kind of delayed gratification seem to have higher economic growth rate.”
However, Americans typically have bigger cars which are harder to park. People over here are also more prone to swiping prime parking spots, especially after driving around for a few minutes looking for one.
While this may be far from a definitive study, it’s still pretty provocative, and Li thinks that this needs to be expanded into a much larger study. Looking at a few hundred cars parked in major cities around the world is a good start; it’s just going to be a while before we begin seeing parking behavior change in America.
So until that day comes, here’s what I recommend: When you find a good spot to park that chariot of yours, put on those hazards, pop it in reverse, and back on in. You’re going to spend just as much (if not more) time trying to safely back out when it’s time to leave, so it only makes sense.