The eternal dilemma: which queue is it best to join?


Imagine that bar service is allowed again and you can choose between two different drinks counters at a festival. One has orderly lines marked with posts, the other is entirely at random. Which option should you choose in order to get your drink fastest?

“The more rules and the more orderly things are, the faster it goes.” That’s what most people think. “In fact, it’s exactly the opposite: a random group at the bar can actually go more quickly”, explains queue specialist professor Wouter Rogiest. “If you stand shoulder to shoulder with others at a serving counter, you give people a sense of urgency. After all, you don’t want the person behind you to have to wait because you are messing around with money or coupons. That hot breath down your neck is a good reason to get yourself better prepared: coupons at the ready, order on the tip of your tongue.”

“That’s not the case when you stand in snake formation, where everyone is waiting in the same queue and the person at the front goes to the next available serving counter. Once it’s your turn, you feel more relaxed and can take your time to pay. This is very pleasant if you are the customer, but use this kind of system at a festival and you are guaranteed to have to wait longer.”

Choosing the right queue

Even so, it is very likely that the system of ‘organised’ rows will still be applied at festivals, along with other places, due to the corona measures. So is there anything you can do to make the ‘right’ choice? Very little, it turns out. “If there are different queues to choose from, like in the supermarket, you actually never know which will be fastest. You can keep an eye on which employee works fastest, but there are so many other factors that can cause you to be last. Someone who spends ages looking for their money, or struggles to pack their shopping.”

So Wouter sees more opportunity in unregulated queuing, and this is also possible in times of corona: “There are several solutions if you want to prevent too many people standing too close together. Festival organisers are advised to install more serving counters. The more you provide, the better people are distributed. Or adopt a layered approach, going group by group to the counter.”

Wouter Rogiest

Wouter Rogiest graduated in 2004 as a civil engineer. In 2008, he completed his doctorate in the theory of queuing, applied to optical networks. His favourite spot at Ghent University is the UFO at Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat. He thinks the building is beautiful and he adores all the light coming through the large windows.


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