Michael Moynihan: Long lines across the water and parsing the fine art of queuing

People have a tolerance for waiting in queues that is proportional to the complexity or quantity of service that they anticipate
Michael Moynihan: Long lines across the water and parsing the fine art of queuing

Members of the public in the queue at Southwark Park in London, as they wait to view Queen Elizabeth II lying in state ahead of her funeral. Picture: Ian West/PA Wire

I’m aware that there was a queue across the water last week.

Or a Queue, which seems necessary, if not actually obligatory. I got the impression that a reference to the crowd waiting to see the late Queen’s coffin which didn’t involve a tactful capitalisation would result in transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.

To quote about 87% of the Irish population in the last few days, while God knows I am no monarchist myself, I do have a (slightly embarrassing interest) that I now feel I can share with the whole world.

My own slightly embarrassing interest is neither the exact line of succession to the British crown nor the stunning insights offered by reading the body language of various members of the royal family, though I acknowledge freely that people focused on these areas have nothing to be ashamed of.

Queuing is my focus. It has been ever since I learned there was a man nicknamed Dr Queue, the acknowledged expert in the area — Richard C Larson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

(When I saw his name first I wondered if he was related to Glen A Larson, who entertained us back in the seventies with Alias Smith And Jones, Battlestar Galactica, and other TV masterpieces. I don’t think so.)

Tolerance for queuing

Larson’s research would probably interest many of those who queued in London for hours to see the Queen, or at least while away a few of those hours. He suggested that people have a tolerance for waiting in queues that is proportional to the complexity or quantity of service that they anticipate, and pointed to organisations which excelled in queue management.

For instance, Disney theme parks are a market leader here because of their ability to manage people’s expectations — the parks often give an estimate for how long someone might spend standing in line for one of the rides, but those wait times are almost always overestimated, according to Larson’s research.

However, that means if the wait time announced is an hour, for example, those in the queue are pleasantly surprised when they get to the top of the line in 45 minutes because technically they’re “ahead of schedule.”

(I’m not sure whether Larson would describe telling people they faced a wait of 24 hours to see a closed coffin, as happened in London, as managing expectations. He’d probably be sent to the Tower if he did so.)

You can go even deeper into queue psychology. Larson argues that the single serpentine line, or queue (think of a concert venue) is better than having multiple parallel line queues (think of supermarket check-outs).

Nobody seemed put out by The Queue and the atmosphere was respectfully jovial.
Nobody seemed put out by The Queue and the atmosphere was respectfully jovial.

Why? Studies have shown that the single serpentine line makes customers happier than parallel lines because the former seems fairer: first come, first served. And no-one gets stressed because they have to choose what appears to be the fastest of the parallel queues, or worry about what happens if the queue they pick comes to a stop.

Research also suggests that being in a queue generates a dual response: people queuing become demoralised as they wait but have a positive response to each forward movement of the queue. Their overall reaction to the experience depends on how those responses interact and which takes precedence for them.

All of which helped me to evaluate and then assemble my own offering here. My all-time top five Cork queues.

The North Cathedral, May 1980: this was the queue to be confirmed by the late Dr Cornelius Lucey, Bishop of Cork and Ross.

I was at the very end of a long, long line of sixth-class kids from what seemed like every school within 20 miles of the Cathedral, and I’m afraid I would have contradicted the accepted queuing research wisdom, as I was totally demoralised by the time I got to the top of the queue. 

As a 70s child I was probably also dehydrated and slightly delirious when I finally came face to face with the Bishop and then tottered off into the sunlight, duly confirmed.

The Bishop wasn’t too impressed either. He retired shortly afterwards and took off for Peru.

Various late-summer evenings, Washington Street, 1981-4: every year we left it too late altogether to buy our school books, which meant my late mother had to make a panicked dash to lasso some copies of Holland and Madden, or Exploring English, or whatever textbooks were on the list that had been left yellowing at the back of the cupboard all summer.

This meant hours loitering on line in Washington Street, where I have no memory of the shop itself but plenty of images of the queue itself. For all I know the shop in question was at the North Gate Bridge and the queue simply snaked half a mile around the corner. Great days.

Various nightclubs, Cork city centre, 1985-90: the fons et origo of many a ‘hilarious’ anecdote reheated many time since (much like the food in said nightclubs, ho ho), this was a queue to get in somewhere dark where you could listen to Ride On Time and enjoy some warm Ritz.

Fraught zone

It could be a fraught zone. My favourite queue yarn involves Zoe’s, a lot of hair product, and someone setting fire accidentally to someone else’s parka jacket (with the aid of the hair product, which seemed dangerously flammable). No Ritz for anyone that evening.

Ballinlough GAA pitch, 1987: at that time coming down onto the playing area in Ballinlough involved a tricky choice. The safe option was to use the grassy stretch either side of the tarmac path rather than the path itself, which could be treacherous if you wore studs.

The attraction of the tarmac path, however, was the enjoyable clattering sound your studs made as you thundered down for combat in a swift-moving queue of teammates.

Unless the treachery of the path was too much for your (always wayward) sense of balance, and you took a tumble and tripped up half your teammates, making them look anything but fearsome opponents.

I heard that that happened to someone one time.

The Bons Secours Hospital, November 2021: when your columnist was facing into a routine procedure here last year he came face to face with the surgeon responsible around lunchtime.

“You’re last in the queue,” he said. “Around eight o’clock this evening.” “You’ll be a bit tired then, surely,” I said. “Would you be better off having a go when you’re fresh in the morning?” He waited just long enough to suggest he was giving it some serious thought.

“Ah no. I’ll be grand.” I was thinking of that momentary pause at around 8.10 that evening, when the man who’d been ahead of me in the queue was wheeled out in front of me, unconscious.

Dr Larson might be interested to note that I continued to be demoralised even though I was moving forward in the line, but all’s well that ends well. When it was time to be discharged I was well and truly at the top of the queue.

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