What Makes Some Train Station Waits Better Than Others?

"Queueing theory" says we hate the injustice of waiting on chaotic lines.

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Reuters

Penn Station in New York is as busy as it is cramped. The crowding gets particularly awful once track numbers are announced and everyone scrambles to form a line to board. Recently a few New Jersey Transit riders had been getting a jump on the queue through a website called Clever Commute, which revealed the track information ahead of time. The fun ended last week, reports the Wall Street Journal, when N.J. Transit blocked the necessary data feed.

"It made it a lot more civilized," one rider lamented to the Journal.

There are many reasons boarding N.J. Transit feels less than civilized, particularly when you're squished up close to someone dressed for the Shore in the summertime heat. But the other corners of Penn Station aren't much more comfortable. While there are some decent tricks to boarding Amtrak — none of which will be revealed here, for selfish reasons — the process is essentially the same. People wait for a track number to be announced, then jam toward the gate in a chaotic line that's easy to cut and hard to bear.

Everyone handles waiting on lines with varying degrees of composure, or lack thereof, but there are some universal rules for what we hate about them. The M.I.T. professor Richard Larson, sometimes known as Dr. Queue, described three of them in his famous treatise on the subject from 1987. As Larson's "queueing theory" makes clear, it's not the length of the wait that bothers us so much — it's what might be called the personality of it.

The first element of a queue is what Larson calls its "social justice." Simply put, we hate when someone who arrives at a line after we do gets to the front of it first. "In customers' perceptions of queues, fear of social injustice can often dominate queue waiting times," writes Larson. To control this fear, many business managers employ line restraints like ropes to create a single-file line (sometimes called a serpentine line). Queueing theorists believe people would rather wait longer on a just line than shorter on an unjust one.

The second part of queueing theory is the "environment" of a line. The brief synopsis here is that we hate waiting on a line if all we do on the line is wait. In his 1987 paper (and in this YouTube video from last year), Larson gives the example of the Manhattan Savings Bank in the days before ATMs. Customers hated waiting on the long lines that formed around lunchtime, but the answer to the complaint wasn't more tellers — it was providing live entertainment. When the bank put a concert pianist in the lobby, says Larson, people actually got upset that the line wasn't longer.

The third factor in waiting is "feedback." Larson and other queueing theorists believe that when we're standing on a line, we like to be told when we can expect to be at the front of it. Feedback can come through signs, like they have on lines at Disneyland, or it can come through seeing those in front of us complete the line in regular intervals. Larson suspects a person would much prefer to wait behind 10 people who passed through the line every minute than one person who ends up taking 10 minutes; the total time is the same, but not the psychological effect.

Penn Station lines certainly fail on the first measurement: they lack an orderly system and are vulnerable to cutters from the sides. They also have little in the way of environment; in fact it can be rather stressful to perform the gymnastics of avoiding someone's bag and someone else's backside, all while trying to be kind enough to let in that old couple without giving up your place. The feedback is somewhat consistent but the speed itself is rarely satisfactory because the goal isn't merely to make the train but to get a good seat.

Still some credit where it's due. Unlike Washington's Union Station, for instance, Penn Station earns points for limiting the amount of time spent on the line as much as possible, which it does by delaying the track announcements until the train arrives and, evidently, and banning technology that gives some people an unfair advantage. In that sense the station's lines do demonstrate social justice, in the form of equal-opportunity frustration.

Photo credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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