In Praise of Queue Jumping

22nd December, 2007

Dear Economist,
My time waiting in a bank queue is vastly longer than standing in a supermarket one. How can I reduce my queuing time?

Dear Ken,

On a personal level, your options are obvious. You could take a collection from those behind you and use it to pay those in front of you to leave. Or you could simply bring a slim paperback and put your queuing time to good use.

But what really matters here is the cost to society. Queues are enormously costly. Imagine a bank queue in which one customer arrives per minute, and one customer per minute is dealt with by staff. All it takes is a cashier on a cigarette break, or a sudden rush of customers, and you could have 10 people in the queue. At that point, each person has to queue for 10 minutes, even though people are leaving as quickly as they are arriving. Somehow the queue must be disposed of.

The solution is elegant and unexpected: new arrivals should go directly to the front, to be served immediately after the current customer. Queues would then be very short, because once a customer was pushed back a couple of places he or she would give up and go home. The economist Refael Hassin has shown that this rule can be socially efficient, while the economics writer Steven Landsburg has advocated its introduction for telephone queues.

This makes sense. In both cases, the same number of people get to use the bank. But under the Hassin-Landsburg rule, queues are much shorter and we all spend less time waiting in line. All that remains is to encourage banks to enforce the system. Since it is perverse and counter-intuitive, they may find it very appealing.

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