Priority queues: Paying to get to the front of the line

Queuing at Wendy's

In the US, as elsewhere, it is becoming more common to see queues where one can pay to get to the front. It brings the market to the experience of waiting in line - but some say it conflicts with the principles of fairness and equality.

Up until recently, the "serpentine" queue was the norm in America - and businesses were proud to implement them.

"There used to be a bank in New York called Chemical Bank and they used to claim that they were the first ones to have that in their bank lobbies," says Richard Larson, a queuing theorist at MIT. "Wendy's is very proud that they were the first ones in fast food to have the single serpentine line."

The model works because most members of society agree the person who's been waiting longest should be served next, he says.

But today, many Americans are waiting in a new kind of queue - the priority queue, where certain customers get higher priority because they pay.

How do 'serpentine' queues work?

Serpentine queue matrix

The serpentine line funnels all customers into one big snaking queue, demarcated by ropes or barriers. When you reach the head of the queue, you are directed to the next available server, or teller, or customs official. The serpentine line isn't always faster than a simple scrum before an array of cash registers. But it offers important solace: You absolutely never have to see someone arrive after you and get served before you.

Slate: What you hate most about waiting in line

In American airports, priority queues are now visible everywhere - at the check-in counter, at security and at boarding gates. Many airlines now board their passengers according to the amount of money they've paid for their ticket.

Like Ryanair in Europe, discount airline Spirit is both unpopular and extremely successful. People may moan that they have to pay extra to board first or get a particular seat - but the low prices mean they keep booking tickets.

Priority queues are also being brought in to other areas of American life - from highways to theme parks.

Take the Six Flags White Water amusement park in Atlanta, which implemented a priority queue system in 2011.

Some guests simply queue up for their rides. Those who purchase green-and-gold wrist bands - fitted with radio frequency technology - are able to swim in the pool or eat snacks before being alerted to their turn.

Start Quote

To me, my time is worth money - it's as simple as that”

End Quote Clint Keener Atlanta commuter

Guests who pay an even higher fee - roughly double the price of admission - get the gold flash pass, cutting their waiting time in half.

The company says it has been a huge hit and is now installing the system in all of its American water parks.

I loved using the flash pass, but when I saw a group of teenage girls glaring at another group of teenage girls all wearing gold wrist bands - I wondered if priority queues were adding to the polarisation in American society, already a hot political issue. Is it really a good idea to further divide citizens into first and second-class citizens?

The priority queuing system has also started to be extended to the public sphere. Many people who drive to Six Flags White Water take Interstate highway I-85.

Queues around the world

Indian policeman attempts to control a queue using a bamboo stick ( February 2011)
  • In the UK, most public spaces operate a first-come-first-served system. An idea floated last month by the UK Border Agency to provide fast-track passport lanes for "high-value" travellers was greeted with some unease.
  • A visitor to Spain might arrive at a shop and see a huddle of people, in no obvious order. In fact, they use an efficient method - on arrival they shout "Who is last?" Then they can relax until that person is served - knowing they will be next.
  • India's concept of the queue is quite loose. Airport queues are usually of the first-come-first-served type. But at rail and bus stations, and in many other public spaces, people with sharp elbows invariably get served first.
  • Even though queuing for food is no longer a daily necessity, Russians still usually form orderly lines in official institutions. At the doctor's, though, some try to queue-jump by asking for "a minute with a doctor, just to get his signature". Once they're in, they may be half an hour.
  • In Brazil, if you are elderly, disabled or pregnant, you have a legal right to jump the queue.

In October 2011, Atlanta created a priority lane on the highway for drivers with a Peach Pass - the price of driving in the lane changes depending on how much traffic there is.

Critics call them "Lexus lanes", because they claim the lanes benefit only the rich who can afford expensive cars.

Aside from the cost of the express lanes, some drivers are also upset that they replace car pool lanes - special lanes for cars with two or more passengers.

Overnight all the car pool drivers who used to ride free were pushed into the general lanes, making traffic worse for everyone except those who pay.

"I used to be able to drop my daughters off at the bus stop, hop in the car and start my commute. I'd usually arrive at work 35-40 minutes later," says Chris Haley, who blogs at Stop Peach Pass.

"But the very first day this was implemented my commute was an hour and half. It was like that the next day and the next day… it went on for weeks."

He says he cannot afford to spend $120 (£74) extra a month to commute - and he's now had to stop dropping his daughters off.

The Georgia Department of Transportation defends the express lanes - it says they offer a choice to frustrated Atlanta drivers.

Certainly some commuters appreciate them. "I like being able to go around all these crazy people in traffic," says graphic designer Clint Keener.

"To get to work on time, fresh, not stressed out. To me, my time is worth money, my time is worth a dollar. It's as simple as that."

But Georgia state senator Curt Thompson calls them "un-American".

People in a queue

"This is not about improving traffic times. It's just about giving options to people who can afford it.

"What it does is it creates what I call the politics of envy. It separates the haves and the have-nots," he says.

Find out more

Queue at an American airport
  • Benjamen Walker's documentary Waiting in Line in America was broadcast on BBC World Service

"We've always prided ourselves on not being so stratified. Our founding fathers never had this idea of, 'I got mine, now you go get yours'. That's not anywhere in the constitution, the bill of rights, the declaration of independence. But that's what this creates."

If the use of priority lanes has raised the ire of some of Atlanta's residents, bringing the priority queuing mentality into the American college system has proved even more controversial.

California's community colleges have provided generations of low-income students access to higher education. However, budget cuts have forced some colleges to reduce the number of classes they offer - and getting a seat can be tricky.

At Santa Monica College in California I saw students sitting on the floor and standing in the hall hoping to get a coveted seat in one of the over-subscribed classes.

"Our classes are basically completely filled, they're 100% full. And it's maddening for us because we pride ourselves on access," says college president Chui Tsang.

Desperate to widen access, last spring he came up with a programme he called Advance Your Dreams.

Are priority queues 'un-American'?

We all accept priority queues in certain situations. In grocery stores customers buying few items often enjoy "express" service in special checkout lanes.

In hospital emergency rooms, a nurse triages new entries and assigns priorities based on health status, with those having life-threatening conditions awarded highest priority. Few would argue against these practices.

Paying a higher price to get better and faster service is a worldwide custom, not just an American one.

It is an example of "demand management", in which price of a service is matched to demand. In non-queueing situations we see it all the time - hotel rooms and car rentals are cheaper at weekends, car parking charges are less in off-peak hours, etc.

I do not see differential service based on differential pricing as un-American - it is simply another manifestation of matching supply and demand by market pricing.

Often those paying the highest price subsidise others who can then enjoy the service, though perhaps with a bit of temporal inconvenience.

Richard Larson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tsang's plan would enable students to pay up to 400% more for a guaranteed seat in a class, and the money generated would have allowed extra classes to be arranged.

"It's like a Robin Hood system," he says. "Those who can afford it can pay a little higher and the excess revenues can help subsidise those who cannot afford the same price."

But not all students were convinced. Student president Harrison Wills says the proposal discriminates against poorer students.

"What you're going to have is a competing group of people applying for the cheapest classes and then those that don't get it, those who can afford it will go to the second tier," he says.

Those who could not afford it would have to wait and try to get on the course again at a later date.

Disquiet over the Advance Your Dreams programme led to a protest at a meeting of the school's trustees, which span out of control, leading campus police to pepper-spray a number of students.

The California chancellor of education then requested that the college put the controversial programme on hold. Tsang has not given up though, and hopes to reintroduce it at a later date. He says he is still baffled by the outcry.

"Freedom of choice is a fundamental right that we have in the United States," he says.

"And in this system when you tell someone that, 'Yeah, you have money but I cannot allow you to make a free choice because it's not fair,' that's insane."

Americans have a deep-rooted belief in the market and since priority queues can generate revenue it's no surprise that they are turning up in the public sector as well.

But are traditional American values like fairness and equal opportunity really compatible with letting someone buy their way to the front of the line? And what happens when the people who pay more want more?

Benjamen Walker's documentary Waiting In Line in America is broadcast on the BBC World Service. Listen back via iPlayer or browse our documentary podcast archive.

Below is a selection of your comments

Americans should be proud that we are taking economics into consideration when it comes to travel and waiting. Fairness has no place when it comes to real life, you make the decisions that shape your future based on the options available to you. If more options are available to me then I consider that a win.

Aaron Paolozzi, Fairfax, US

Priority queuing is abominable. Once the egalitarian approach to waiting for services is abandoned, there is no telling how that bias is dispensed, by what class creed or religious affiliation, and to whom it favours. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put back in. And the very idea that this be codified into access to public services is at its very core undemocratic. I could afford to pay for such access, but would feel like slime doing so.

David Lawrence, New York City

The first place I encountered a paid priority queue was at the London Eye. The price difference was huge but I paid it because it saved us two hours. That's two hours more time to see London, or have lunch, or take a nap. I gritted my teeth when I paid it, but I didn't have any guilt about it. Well, not too much.

Steven Branca, Milwaukee, US

In a post office in Buenos Aires a few years back, I joined a long, very orderly and polite queue of people waiting. Suddenly a man came in and went straight to the head of it. He was served without a protest. Indeed, the other queuers assured me this was quite normal and how it should be. Unlike everyone else, he came to deposit money. Until he did, no one else could hope to withdraw any!

Uncle Russ, Toulouse, France

In the UAE there is a designated ladies' queue in most public offices, and it is common practice for ladies to be invited to take the next available position in for example the bank or post office. Once my husband got over the unfairness of this positive discrimination, he realised that I could go in his place, as it would take him three times as long to complete the same task.

Jane, Dubai, UAE

I love a queue, if I see one I join it regardless of knowing what it's for - I met my wife in a queue, and I once won a motorcycle just by standing in line.

Luke Gray, Essex, UK

Indians are the most disorganised when it comes to queues and are always waiting for a chance to break one! I have heard of only priority queue at a temple called Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, where people who pay extra can jump a part of the line. I always looked up to the developed countries like the US and the UK for their orderly system of lining up and I am really disappointed that market economics is taking away the egalitarianism of the queue in the US.

Melanie, Bangalore, India

In Italian post offices the waiting time can be quite considerable. In many major centres of southern Italy, the entire queue ticket-roll is first sold by a postal employee to a contractor and then, he in turn auctions the individual queue tickets to the highest bidders outside the door.

Giuseppe Nero, Naples, Italy

I was waiting with a work colleague in a bank queue in Saudi Arabia. A young Saudi pushed us aside to force his way to the front, I was wearing Scandinavian clogs, and stood on his open-toed sandal as he reached the window immediately in front of me. The howls of anguish were heard all over the bank before he hobbled out. The security guard was still laughing when we left.

Peter Marton, Middlesborough, UK

Paying money to get to the head of the queue, or to get preferential treatment, is called paying a bribe.

Stephen Durnien, Sutton Coldfield, UK

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