Bottom Line

Always looking to get ahead, Greg Dawson gives his take on waiting in line.

Impatience, overthinking and a wild competitive streak have made me a chronic line-switcher.

Showing me two or more lines—at the supermarket, airport security, the bank drive-through—is like waving a red cape in front of a bull. And 90 percent of the time I end up like the bull: ropa vieja. The long line I abandon ends up being faster than the shorter one I join.

I’m not just a line-switcher, I’m a jinx. The Chris Christie of liners-up. Whichever line I choose comes to a screeching, whiplash halt.

At the supermarket, I switch to the line about to have an epic cash register fail. At the bank, it’s the lane with only one car—but the customer is either renegotiating his mortgage or asleep. At the airport, I’m behind the guy who has to remove more bling than Liberace to get through the metal detector.

Why does the line next to me at checkout always seem to be moving faster than mine?

It’s an illusion, says Daniel Myers, assistant professor of computer science at Rollins College whose doctoral dissertation was on queuing theory—the science of lines.

“From a theoretical perspective, it’s not surprising that if you look to the left and the right, at any moment a line may seem to be moving faster,” Myers says. “This is natural variation. When we look at queuing systems we expect there to be short-term fluctuations. Over time it all balances out.”

It’s going to take a lot of fast lines to balance my scales. It’s estimated that Americans spend 37 billion hours a year queuing up (roughly 125 hours per person), and I figure a thousand of those are mine. But it’s my fault since I have this fatal attraction for doomed lines.

Why don’t I ever learn? Maybe I’m just insane. My chronic, unsuccessful line-switching fits the popular definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

When I discovered there was a whole “science” of lines, with professors and equations and real-world applications, I was excited. Maybe somebody could help me beat my addiction.

Alas, it appears to me the “science” of queuing in the marketplace is just the art of fooling people. Fooling them into thinking the line is not as long as it really is, or taking their minds off the line entirely.

The discovery-of-fire moment for commercial use of queuing theory came in the 1950s in New York when people began complaining about long waits for elevators in high-rise buildings. A professor hired to study the problem had a blinding epiphany: The solution is not cutting wait time, it’s making people not care they are waiting.

He recommended installing floor-to-ceiling mirrors next to the elevators so people would be distracted by their reflections. (We put a mirror in our parrot’s cage for the same reason.) Complaints dropped sharply. I guess this means we are a nation of parrots, or narcissists—or narcissistic parrots.

Disney, of course, is the acclaimed master of line management, making us forget we are waiting 45 minutes for a three-minute ride by turning the wait itself into entertainment. It’s also said by experts and frequent visitors that Disney overestimates wait times, so we’re thrilled when the 45-minute wait is only half an hour.

Another ah-ha! innovation for queuing wizards was the serpentine line, which addresses the scenario that most enrages people about lines: seeing someone who arrived after you getting served first. With everyone in a single, twisting queue instead of several lines moving at different speeds, each new arrival goes to the back of the snake.

I wonder how many people in long lines really are fooled by these various machinations and how many simply are in denial about waiting 45 minutes for a three-minute ride or six hours for the new iPhone.

Daniel Myers certainly is not in denial. A recent transplant from Madison, WI, Myers, 32, is getting used to longer waits in Orlando and has no illusions that his esoteric knowledge is a magic wand.

“It doesn’t matter how much you know about lines, you still have to wait,” he says. “Especially when trying to go north on Mills Avenue at 4 o’clock on Friday.”

In situations offering multiple lines, his advice—based on personal experience—is never to switch lines “unless you see another register open up.”

My advice: If you look over and see me in the next line—stay where you are.

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