Comic-Con: The Science of Waiting in Line
By Kyle Hill on July 26, 2014
Lines, lines, lines! If you’ve ever been to a Comic-Con or similarly huge convention you know that waiting in line is the worst part. If only playground rules applied and you could skip in line without being accosted by security. But Comic-Con and other institutions that must deal with a human throng aren’t trying to make you stand and suffer—there is actually a lot of science behind queuing up for Hall H. A longer line can be a faster line.
About a century ago, an engineer named Agner Krarup Erlang was struggling with optimizing switchboards at the Copenhagen telephone exchange. He wanted to find out what the optimal number of lines would be to make sure that almost everyone got their calls connected without waiting too long. After devising a number of equations quantifying average time spent on a call and the expected number of calls per hour, in 1909 Erlang published a paper stating that the telephone exchange would need seven lines to ensure that 99 percent of calls would be connected almost immediately. Those findings created the field of “queuing theory.”
Queuing theory lives on today as the complicated study of the best ways to move people through stores, hospitals, traffic intersections, and more. The literature has some interesting applications to your daily life. For example, it always seems like the other lines at the supermarket are faster than the one you are in, right? It’s because they are. Based on queuing theory, having people line up in a number of separate lines with checkout counters that are constantly changing staff is significantly slower than having one large serpentine or winding line with multiple checkout counters.
Banks and grocery stores like Whole Foods have been using single lines with multiple servers for years. Although it feels like you are a mouse running through a maze, you will end up waiting less time than if everyone formed multiple lines for each server.
Comic-Con attendees get to experience the consequences of queuing theory much more than they would probably like. Waiting in line to get your badge means walking to the back of what is seemingly a mile-long line, which is aggravating, even though the line is relatively fast. But shorter lines can be worse. If you have to buy a ticket to purchase merchandise at one of the many booths on the Comic-Con floor, you’ll quickly learn that having a single line with a single server can be far worse than getting a badge.
The science of lining up has statistical and empirical truths, but there is another aspect to it. Telling people that a longer, single line is more efficient doesn’t address the feeling of waiting in line. The psychology of waiting for a Game of Thrones panel is something else entirely. Not only can waiting in a long line give people the impression of a slower line, it can scare off people entirely.
And aversions to long waiting times changes the way people respond to the experience. When the Houston airport started receiving complaints about how long people were waiting for their belongings at baggage claim, they tried to change their psychology. The airport moved the baggage claims further away from the main terminal, increasing the walking distance by six and decreasing the total time standing at the baggage carousel. The complaints stopped. “Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself,” M.I.T. operations researcher Richard Larson told the New York Times.
At Comic-Con, you’ll find an array of different queuing options, from single serpentine lines to multiple lines with multiple servers. If you find yourself braving the crowds this weekend, try to overcome the odd psychology that has us favoring shorter lines over longer ones, even if the longer line moves faster. As for the heat, the lack of personal space, and the smell, there isn’t a theory to help you beat that.