Whose line is it anyway?

17:00, May 31 2014
HAPPY TO WAIT: A queuing crowd is usually a happy crowd.

"No manners," hissed the woman in front.

"You need to be louder," said her friend - emphasising the "louder" with a glare at the grey-haired and well-dressed offenders to her right.

For at least 30 minutes, this genteel queue had waited with their general admission tickets and their white chocolate and raspberry ice creams. They kissed each other on the cheek and discussed in modulated tones what they did (and didn't) like about The Luminaries.

There were 2115 of them for the sell-out session with author Eleanor Catton. It was a night for learned debate, for well-cut wool coats and statement brooches.

And then the doors opened.

The single-file line became an eight-wide scrum. Pointed elbows, pointed stares. At the Auckland Writers Festival, the book-crowd queue was behaving rock-star badly.


Last year, in a survey commissioned to produce headlines (while also promoting the Blu-Ray and digital release of the movie Wolverine), 2000 British respondents named queue-jumping as the number one behaviour likely to enrage.

Last week, in an unsolicited post about a top Auckland hotel on TripAdvisor, a visitor named queue-jumping as the most annoying aspect of her stay: "The egg chef at breakfast gave priority to a certain gentleman who was allowed to jump the queue and this was unnecessarily irritating."

New Zealand may have been colonised by a nation of queuers (cultural stereotype joke alert: How do you get a line to form in Britain? Stand still) but we are not necessarily very good at it - especially in Auckland, our biggest centre.

"It's just a matter of reminding ourselves," says John Strawbridge, Auckland Transport Operations Centre manager. "We're not just a little city where everybody can drive to something. We're a big rig now."

This Saturday, Strawbridge's team will be responsible for managing the bus, train and ferry flow of people to Auckland's Eden Park for the All Blacks versus England rugby test match. A crowd of 46,120 is expected - and up to half of those will queue for public transport.

"You engage security and public transport personnel who are good communicators," says Strawbridge. "People who are actually prepared to talk to people. That's your number one rule. You're never going to get a crowd to comply unless you tell them what to do and where to stand and constantly remind them the next train's coming in 10 minutes, or the bus is on its way - that sort of thing."

Researchers concur. When it comes to queue management, there are three oft-reported aspects of the human condition psychologists say must be considered: we get bored when we wait in line; we don't like waiting longer than we expected; we don't like it when someone who arrived after us is served before us.

(Anecdotally, we also get quite cross when the people in rows one to 26 get on to the plane without listening to the loudspeaker instructions telling them to wait; when the person in front of us at the supermarket self serve spends 45 minutes trying to find the button for broccoli; and when the queue at the cinema does not move because the ticket operator is also the popcorn fetcher and the soft drink dispenser).

Constant reassurance is what's required, says Strawbridge. "It seems like it's taking a while, but you've actually only been in the queue 20 minutes. It feels like 20. If you're busting for the loo, it's even worse . . . in any crowd situation, it's about communication."

Strawbridge reports events like Blues rugby games are now "well-oiled" crowd management machines - around 30 per cent of attendees at the five matches so far this season have used public transport, and all crowds have been cleared in under 40 minutes.

Back in January, some 10,000 people were moved from Western Springs' Big Day Out in 74 minutes, and 35,000

people were cleared from Bruce Springsteen's Sunday night Mt Smart Stadium show 73 minutes after the boss left the stage.

This Saturday's test match, says Strawbridge, will involve "considerable" barrier systems at Auckland's Morningside and Kingsland train stations, and Eden Park. Queue configurations depend on how much space is available. "Snakes" are popular, but holding pens, which can take 800 people - or a six-carriage trainload - are also utilised.

"Our record is 53 minutes, for the final All Blacks test last year against South Africa.

"If you're at the front of the queue and you're on a train, you'll be back at Britomart at the Tyler Street Garage on the balcony having a celebratory glass of champagne within 20 minutes after the final whistle."

Kiwis, notes Strawbridge, are well travelled and used to standing in queues overseas. Is it a shock to discover we now have to do that at home?

"Particularly those of us who are now living in Auckland know that today, even when you go to a bar to get a drink, you're queuing. It's just the volume of people that are here now. It's a good thing. It makes it a modern, vibrant, sexy city, but we've just got to be patient. Take a chill pill and enjoy the moment."

Michael Trick is a Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University professor of "operations research" - the branch of academia that considers queuing. Seven years ago, he lectured at Auckland University, lived on Waiheke Island and blogged about this country's efficiency (or lack thereof).

"We love living on Waiheke," he wrote, "but any outing often results in ‘island efficiency' which tests our relaxed, island mentality to its fullest. For instance, last night we went to a costume ball (medieval style). Beautiful converted barn, wonderful food, perfect music. And exactly one porta-potty for 200 guests at this four hour affair . . ."

This week, via email, Trick acknowledged his sample was "rather biased".

"I don't think people on Waiheke are particularly representative of New Zealand. Nor, for that matter, are those in Auckland where I was working.

"If there was an aspect of queuing that I remember from our year it's the attitude of those in line. I am not quite certain of the right word: it is not happiness, nor resignation, nor annoyance. Perhaps the best word is acceptance: there is a line, I am in it."

Trick says line length did not seem to affect service time.

"Much of the world does have some speed-up in order to get rid of the line (or slowdown in a passive-aggressive response to lines) but New Zealand queue servers of any type - ticket salespeople, bartenders, etc - don't really seem to notice there is a queue."

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