Queue Theory and Design

In the US, it’s called a line.

In Canada, it’s often referred to as a line-up.

Pretty much everywhere else, it’s known as a queue.

My friend Benjamen Walker is obsessed with queues. He keeps sending me YouTube clips of queue violence. This preoccupation led him to find a man known as “Dr. Queue.” Richard Larson is a queue theorist at MIT and he talks us through some of the logic behind the design of queues.

Whereas US companies like Wendy’s and American Airlines once prided themselves on their invention of the single, serpentine, first-come first-served queue, more and more companies are instituting priority queues, offering different wait times for different classes of customers.


Benjamen Walker is the host and producer of Too Much Information from WFMU. TMI explores the issues and conflicts of life in the digital era and regularly features some of the leading sages of the information age as well as original fiction and radio drama. It is very important that you subscribe to this podcast. He is also the host and producer of The Big Ideas, a monthly philosophy program from The Guardian UK. Again, it’s just too good to miss. Don’t be a dummy!

How about filling in the comments with stories of good and bad queue design? I know you have stories.

  1. I am very curious about the Japanese song at the end of the episode– part of my brain wanted me to think that it was a Japanese children’s choir cover of Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Ones” but I wasn’t sure… I had subscribed to your excellent podcast months ago but it was only a bout of insomnia opening up two nights of hours that I did a huge “listening binge” and now I am a soon-to-donate minion. “Kowloon Walled City”… man o man… Anyway, I am going to Cambodia this summer for another round of fieldwork (I am a PhD archaeology sutdent at UIC)– there’s a lot of cool architecture stories over there but one is the legacy of the still-living (the Khmer Rouge regime only fell in ’79!) master of New Khmer Architecture, Vann Molyvann http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vann_Molyvann His Bassac Theater just burned down last month and it was treated as a huge tragedy (a lot of Cambodia’s glory is derived from architecture- from the famed Angkor Wat to earlier constructions that they are trying to market in order to decrease destrcutive pressure of 4 millions annual visitors [2 mil foreign]), and one of his artist’s colonies on the riverside is now a sort of far sunnier little version of an involuted lawless Kowloon Walled City… Anyway, thanks for doing the show, maybe you know the name of the Japanese song, and maybe you will also be interested in a Cambodian-flavored collabo at some point- I will be there all summer. Thanks! Keep ’em coming!

    Sincerely, Jacob

    PS- Thank you for putting my city’s wonderful Chicago accents (born and raised with one) on the air during the Trading Places episode

    1. Roy

      Matteru – Lullatone
      (hope you’ll get a notification mail now, it’s a cool song. ;) )

  2. I.T

    I’d recently moved from the United States to my home country of Nigeria where queueing is a relatively recent practice: most places, especially banks, still get it wrong. I was in one of 2 lines -the american in me isn’t in love with the word ‘queue’- being served by 3 tellers. My line was directly in front of 1 teller, the other line to the right of me was in front of another teller and the third teller was off to the far right. So naturally those 2 tellers ended up serving that line while my line was almost exclusively being served by the 1 teller.
    When I was in the front of my line, a lady 2 of 3 spots in line behind me started agitating about the other line moving faster and insisting that I should go to one of the 2 right tellers when the next person was called. When I didn’t respond to her and someone from the right line went up next, she pushed to the front of the line. I told her off roundly, and told her to get back to her place in line because her time was not any more important than everyone else in line ahead of her.
    She was obviously very surprised, I think by 2 things: that, being younger, I spoke that sharply to her (that’s a societal no-no in Nigeria), and by my foreign accent. She looked at me for a second and then said in a sing song mocking tone: “ms. London, ms. America”
    I came away from that encounter with a few things: here people generally do not have the sense of ownership to their place in line like I do, because so-called “VIPs” always get fast-tracked, also due to cultural norms older people also cut in and are excused, and -like in my encounter- anyone who’s loud enough or strong enough or assertive enough tries to do what that lady wanted to, and just cut in front of everyone and ‘everyone’ doesn’t want to make a fuss so stand in line quietly and let’s her go ahead.
    …so there’s my story about queue theory. It’s a great show and I’m quite a fan -I.T

  3. I was an Usher at the Night Show at The Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii. I didn’t ever think of how “Queue Design” could even be a thing before working there. The Amphitheater was Roped off until about 30 minutes before the show started but people started showing up quite a bit earlier than that. There were 6 Portals through which you could enter the Amphitheater, but 3 & 4 were the ones in the center so EVERYONE lined up there. Even though it was Assigned Seating, and there was NEVER a chance you wouldn’t get to your seat in time for the show, people would get contentious over who got there first and how close to the Ropes you were standing. If we started the “Queuing” late, people would already be upset when we got there, even though there was no real “Line” to stand in. But if we got there about the time people started to group up and pretended there was some sort of order to stand in (Sections 1-2 over here, 3-4 here, 5-6 here) and not just “That side of the Ropes” then things “Felt” organized and people were 50 times less irritated by the time we opened the ropes. People got into the Amphitheater and to their seats in the exact same amount time in either case, but just having that sense of order made things go astronomically smoother.

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