Get in line, pal


Let’s say you’d like to withdraw cash from an automated teller machine. As you approach the bank, you see three terminals, with a customer using each one. A bunch of other people wait in a single queue, centred midway along the row of ATMs. You observe that one of the customers is very fast, zipping through the transaction; the other two seem to have trouble using their keypads and reading their screen prompts. Do you

  1. Commit to the “fastest” terminal, waiting directly behind the customer at that ATM
  2. Stick with the single, central queue, allowing the person at its head to use the first available ATM, whichever it is 

If you chose option 2 – thinking only it fulfills the strict first-in, first-out discipline behind this sort of queueing, or maximises average throughput – you’re probably a very frustrated person. Because most of us have other things on our mind than fairness or efficiency in queueing. We may need to get the next train, or be rushing to an appointment, or just not really feel like wasting time in a boring ATM line. Choosing option 1 can – if we cleverly pick the right line – allow us to skip ahead of others who arrived beforehand. And knowing that, even if we don’t, some bastard is sure to try this, most of us won’t bother with option 2, the single first-come first-served queue. For whatever reason, when faced with parallel servers (a row of ATMs, a counter full of cashiers at McDonald’s) people tend spontaneously to form multiple queues, one for each service point.

Nor is this really the customers’ fault. Multi-server, single-queue systems are becoming more familiar: they’re used for airport check-in, at most government offices (for e.g license renewal and registration), inside banks, and for the new automated checkouts at supermarkets. But each of these examples shows the importance of queue-area design (cordons, signs, buffer space) for engineering cooperation amongst those waiting in line. Customers are instructed to queue in a particular way, not left individually to choose between two options, then forced to argue it out when they disagree. It is impossible to be served in any order besides that in which you arrived, whatever the relative service speeds of the staff. (My ATM example is a little misleading, because the queue space usually backs onto a narrow footpath, making multiple parallel queues more sensible than a single long line. Where ATMs are located in an internal vestibule, however, single queues are more common.)

But look at this recent example from a Melbourne supermarket, which gives customers a huge, empty queueing space to play in, and says: sort yourselves out. Madness!


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7 Responses to “Get in line, pal”

  1. Svetles Says:

    Those stickers remind me of the grade prep lining-up area at the Primary School I’m at. There are about 24 white dots painted on the ground in two even rows. The idea is that the preppies stand on a dot each, and therefore are able to form two neat lines. The best thing about it is, the teacher gets to say “You should all be on your dots”. Awwwwww man!

    I guess my point is, preps are adorable. Also, that supermarket is onto something. We need a system to keep us reckless customers in line!

  2. Nick Says:

    Preps are adorable. They’re like babies forced to wear military uniforms.

  3. Tim Says:

    At Coles Central they have a single queue that feeds all of the registers – both conventional and self-serve. This is a problem for those of us who have ideological problems with the self-serve registers and thus refuse to use them. Last time I was there the person directing the queue had to put my purchases through the self-serve register herself (scowling all the while) assuming that I was unable to do so.

  4. Chiara Says:

    I do choose the second option, and I am a very frustrated person.

    When you chose option 1, you say to the world I am the only genius enlightened to the possibility of multiple lines. These single-queue simpletons cannot conceive of such maverick moves because they have nothing better to do than line up obediently for the rest of their tiny lives, whereas I am important and everything I do is urgent. Sure, maybe I’m overly concerned with fairness and efficiency in queuing — or maybe I’m just not an arrogant dickhead.

    I would also direct the churls’ attention to the opening scene of the 30 Rock pilot, which deals with this very situation vis-à-vis the hot dog stand. (It’s entirely possible that my love of the show is a result of its obvious option 2 bias.)

  5. Nick Says:

    I’d forgotten about that scene! Ah, Liz Lemon.

    You can’t do anything about the arrogant dickhead. But by making the queueing protocol common knowledge you can stop the honest idiot who thinks he’s discovered a loophole nobody else has noticed.

    c.f. Aumann’s “Agreeing to Disagree”.

  6. christinachurl Says:

    Are lane-weavers in midlly heavy traffic analogous to multiple-queuers? I tend to think that it’s lane-weavers who are the arrogant dickheads, and they usually end up behind you at the lights anyway. The people that stick to a sensible speed in the middle lane may be frustrated, but they usually get to their destination without leaving a trail of enraged drivers (who have been cut-off suddenly and dangerously) behind them. And also they’re less likely to cause a ten-car pile-up.

  7. Nick Says:

    Vehicular traffic is a bit more complicated because flow rate depends on both speed and density, which is the main thing your lane switcher is screwing with. Rather than allowing uniform density, they create gaps in their old lane and congestion in the new one. Maybe they’re most similar to the person at the counter who pays with 5 cent coins.

    I like to drive in the middle lane, too. Apparently the perception that other lanes are moving faster than your own is an illusion generated by looking forward all the time, thus seeing the cars that pass you for longer than you do the cars you pass!

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