The spread of priority queueing

by on October 12, 2012 at 3:18 am in Economics | Permalink

Here is one example of many:

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.

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.

Furthermore:

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.

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.

For the pointer I thank Ray Lopez.

dirk October 12, 2012 at 3:43 am

There is no Great Stagnation.

Morgan Warstler October 12, 2012 at 7:49 am

I look forward to the day Tyler breaks down and writes this e-book.

Mark Thorson October 12, 2012 at 10:50 am

My post would be above yours, but I wouldn’t give Tyler and Alex the $5. I’d rather spend it on crack.

DocMerlin October 12, 2012 at 3:50 am

The regular theme part Six Flags in Arlington, TX also has a priority system.

mw October 12, 2012 at 4:53 am

sounds like a win, but the troubling part is the accompanying increase in the use of the ‘queuing’ britishism.

Urso October 12, 2012 at 9:37 am

+1 !

Alex Godofsky October 12, 2012 at 10:44 am

‘Queueing’ in this context isn’t a Britishism, it’s just the correct word.

Rahul October 12, 2012 at 11:56 am

To many being correct might be a Britishism…..

GiT October 12, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Round these parts we use “gettin’ in line,” like real Americans.

Dana October 12, 2012 at 1:45 pm

I believe “lining up” was what I learned in preschool, though in my now mostly Latino hometown I understand the literal-ish translation “make the line” is popular even among native English speakers.

Shenpen October 12, 2012 at 4:59 am

Bad idea, because it really rubs in the inequality of wealth, it gives wealthier people more status to flaunt around, hence makes poorer people more pissed off and hence could increase the popularity of redistributive politics.

Are your rich? Be rich _modestly_. Build for your class hyper-expensive clubs and restaurants that don’t show much on the outside, so normal people don’t know how you live. Don’t flaunt it, just enjoy it while keeping a modest facade and that way they will be more okay with you keeping it.

Andrew' October 12, 2012 at 7:43 am

Couldn’t it give the poor free roads in exchange for their time preference?

Morgan Warstler October 12, 2012 at 7:50 am

The point is to train them to accept it.

Richard Gadsden October 12, 2012 at 10:02 am

Exactly, it’s creating an aristocracy.

Sure, it’s not entirely inherited wealth – even rich Americans mostly have to work, rather than being rentiers, and you at least have the Protestant work ethic, so you don’t regard someone who doesn’t work as hierarchially superior to someone that does.

But it’s still aristocracy; wealthy people don’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else, and don’t have to mix with the plebs.

Cliff October 13, 2012 at 1:22 am

Yes, because rich people pay more to get more, we live in an aristocracy. Very clear thinking on your part.

Cliff October 13, 2012 at 1:23 am

I certainly hope that we as civilized humans can be “trained” to accept that some other people have more money than us without ripping them apart in a bloodbath, similar to the way we manage to accept that other people are better looking than us and more charismatic.

AC October 12, 2012 at 8:00 am

Yeah, this seems like the sort of thing that makes perfect sense for homo economicus but not on envious humans. The economic efficiency gained is less than the social cohesion destroyed by pinging people’s “fairness” module.

The rich should be able to exchange money for time, certainly, but let them do it in one big transaction, not in many little transactions that rub in wealth inequality. Anything else makes monkey brains go crazy.

anon October 12, 2012 at 8:24 am

How about we agree that if you spend your money (and time) they way you want to, I get to spend my money (and time) the way I want to?

But then I never understood the attraction of spending a lot of money (and time) going to Disney World or Six Flags.

Other than to ride roller coasters.

AC October 12, 2012 at 9:00 am

And you have very different intuitions about fairness than most people. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Andrew' October 12, 2012 at 9:51 am

Not a bad thing is an understatement when people are fine sitting in a jam right next to a completely empty HOV lane while feeling smugly environmentally righteous.

mootmob October 12, 2012 at 11:36 am

Fairness may be somewhat subjective, but it isn’t totally subjective. (knife to a gun fight, anyone?).

anon doesn’t live in a vacuum. When he spends his money to exclude someone from what used to be a public good, fairness and individual preferences are no longer moot.

Dana October 12, 2012 at 1:52 pm

The genius of all of this is that people who cannot afford it will spend the money to buy into the illusion of equality, a decision that paradoxically eats away at their chances of economic advancement.

Brian Donohue October 12, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Sums up the past 30 years pretty well.

anon October 12, 2012 at 8:18 am

No snark intended:
How are you defining “wealthier people” and how do do you know the people buying the more expensive tickets are “wealthier people”?

Rahul October 12, 2012 at 9:53 am

Ok, I’ll assume poorer people buy more expensive tickets. Now what’s my model to explain this?

Sam October 12, 2012 at 1:18 pm

That they’re poor because they spend all their money on high price amusement park tickets?

more anon October 12, 2012 at 10:43 am

This is a perfectly legitimate question. An example is In the case of “HOT” lanes (where one can pay to drive as a single occupant vehicle in the lane normally reserved for carpoolers). It turns out that people of all financial means use HOT lanes, not just the so called “rich.” Often the financial consequences of being late to work are quite severe for folks who earn less. Being late can mean getting fired in lower paying shift work as opposed to “white collar” jobs where being late often doesn’t matter much.

In my view “rich” and “poor” people alike are more than capable of deciding for themselves whether they want to spend more at an amusement park to reduce wait times or use a HOT lane, or whatever else.

RobinHood October 12, 2012 at 11:22 am

This is exactly why this policy is redistributive, in exactly the wrong way. It’s imposing more costs (being late gets you fired if you’re poor, does nothing if you’re rich) on those who can least afford it.

I mean at a water park, who cares? But on a public good? This is shameful.

more anon October 12, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Exactly what policy is redistributive? (a) Opening up HOV lanes to paying SOVs? (b) Or a businesses policy to fire late employees?

In (a) it sounds like you would rather deny the opportunity to a poor person who is running late to not lose their job by paying the HOT land fee? Sorry, but that makes no sense…. And in (b) you would deny a businesses ability to fire an employee who is late?

Not sure what you are talking about honestly

Brian Donohue October 12, 2012 at 10:20 am

I’m kinda ambivalent. The idea of waiting in line forever is inefficient ad annoying. At some future point, couldn’t parks be arranged where, when you walk in the park, you get a scheduled time for say, 6 rides, then you can do what you want until your time comes? Maybe you’d even buy more stupid shit.

The trend represented here, though, does kind of bug me- airplanes, ballparks, etc. The idea of ‘tiered-service’ at ‘public’ venues seems to have increased a lot.

Sometimes I get good tickets, every once in a while I fly first class. I always feel a bit sheepish. What really rubs people the wrong way about the whole deal, it seems to me, is a sort of arrogant sense of entitlement or reveling in the distinction that is fairly common among the privileged. I don’t get those people.

ila October 12, 2012 at 11:04 am

You can get used to anything; they’ve gotten used to priority everything.

Dan Weber October 12, 2012 at 2:03 pm

There was an article in the NYT about this maybe 8 years ago. On a visit shortly after that, when one ride broke down while we were on it, my family got priority tickets to another ride which let us jump the queue.

The park doesn’t want you waiting in line, either.

dirk October 12, 2012 at 2:49 pm

I got to believe that waiting in line generates some of the excitement for big rides. Makes them seem more exciting than they really are. Creates spectacle. At least for kids.

The economic principle which is getting lost here is that expectations matter. There’s probably some optimum line waiting time which delivers the best trade-off between line waiting and ride excitement. My memories of riding scary roller-coasters as a child are mainly memories of waiting in line to be next, filled with terror and excitement and expectation. I can also remember the first time I went to the amusement park in late summer when the crowds were small and there was no line for the big rides. I rode them over and over but the thrill was gone.

The Anti-Gnostic October 12, 2012 at 11:14 am

You have a point, but I don’t think US amusement parks will be where the revolution breaks out.

If I were a Silicon Valley executive, I’d want to make sure the zoning stays restrictive.

I’ve never been to either place, but isn’t there plenty of ostentatious wealth living cheek-by-jowl with poverty in Rio and Sao Paulo?

bunker brown October 12, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Don’t know about Rio/Sao but there is plenty of cheek-by-jowl poverty/ostentatious wealth in Mumbai.

derek October 12, 2012 at 11:25 am

Let’s make it equal and decrease the enjoyment for everyone!

I take it you love waiting in long lineups.

pithee October 12, 2012 at 11:38 am

um, this is a classic zero-sum game. Less waiting for some people is more waiting for others.

Maybe you could argue that time-preference curves are concave, but your point isn’t as open-shut as you think it is.

The Anti-Gnostic October 12, 2012 at 12:10 pm

This would seem pretty easy to measure and I’m guessing the number-crunchers at Six Flags have done so. And–again, this is just a guess–I bet they find they run more people thru these rides by pricing wait times, which means it’s not zero-sum.

Or maybe not. I’m not privy to Six Flags’ operations.

Keljopy October 12, 2012 at 4:17 pm

I bet they don’t care if they run more people through the rides, but I’m sure they do care if they can make more money when some people are willing to pay more not to wait. I bet the gain from higher prices for non-waiters is a lot more than the loss from the few people who choose not to go at all just because their wait is now longer.

Most rides have a set speed and number of riders which means wait-time IS probably zero-sum as long as their is a line. If the ride’s capacity is 60 people/car and the ride takes 2:00 minutes to load/unload/between cars, then every person that jumps the queue causes me to wait 2 seconds longer on average. Not a lot, but if a lot of people buy the pass it would add up over a day.

derek October 12, 2012 at 9:15 pm

The rides aren’t the problem. As mentioned there are only so many rides to distribute among customers.

This scheme is describing what happens between rides. Equality would mean everyone waiting in the hot sun for a ride. inequality means that people who want to pay more can do something other than stand and wait in the hot sun while waiting. Others can pay a premium to get a ride right away. Those who don’t want to pay more can enjoy what has always been. Enforcing equality in this instance makes everyone poorer, including the ones who are waiting, since they would be in line with many more people, crying kids, etc.

Inequality has become a nonsensical term that has come to include offering a service people are willing to pay for.

Sam October 13, 2012 at 12:45 am

…and note that the people willing to buy the extra wristband are freed up to wait at the snack kiosk, and people who are prepared to pay the extra for wristbands are also likely to be people who will buy more and higher value snacks. In other words, these are exactly the people you want in your concessions.

The cheap folks who will split a bag of fries between the family aren’t worth much in the concession stand, so you don’t lose by having them spend all their time standing in line.

Brock October 12, 2012 at 12:12 pm

+1

Envy is ugly, but all humans have it. When you make inequality too frequent and too blatant, ugly things happen.

In a capitalist system it’s impossible for wealth to be spread around equally, but the wealthy should show other forms of equality to prevent it becoming an issue of “us vs. them”. As an example, Mike Bloomberg takes the subway to work like everyone else. Many Scandinavian politicians take the bus.

If the wealthy wanted a better park experience, they should frequent a park that promises to limit the number of admission tickets sold each day. $400 per day for 1/10th the crowds would probably be a good deal for a lot of people, and would be out of sight of the folks on line at the “Middle Class” parks.

improbable October 12, 2012 at 2:34 pm

One the subject of special $400 theme parks… A curious fact about this discussion of aristocrats jumping queues is that these ones seem to want the same pleasures as the plebs. I think most aristocrats from the past would be struck by the equality here, not the inequality.

Ditto paying extra for the HOV lane… like you mean the rich guys in your country drive themselves to work? To the same building as the plebs, at the same time, in ever so slightly bigger air-conditioned boxes?

I almost wonder if this convergence of taste and lifestyles has something to do with the rise of inequality as a buzz-word. We have no idea what they get up to at their polo matches but if they’re cutting in line at the fairground that riles people.

Cliff October 13, 2012 at 1:28 am

Yes, ugly things happen like lynch mobs killing rich people. All the time, right?

gab October 12, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Eat the holders of the “gold flash pass.”

Greg the dude October 12, 2012 at 6:03 am

In Detroit, the Border Patrol has instituted priority queuing at the international crossings into Canada. If you buy a special pass ($400 per person, thank you very much), you can use the special fast lane to get through, although it doesn’t save you from having to stop and be questioned. What disturbs me is that the service time in this particular queue is completely arbitrary, and the people who stand to profit from the priority queue have the ability to delay the non-priority queue at will.

It was while waiting in the non-priority queue one day that I realized the notion of baksheesh is not so alien in our culture, we just use creative names to disguise it.

bunker brown October 12, 2012 at 12:52 pm

I disagree. There are people for whom priority queueing is necessitated by work or other time-inflexible commitments, and then there are the tourists.

Baksheesh is arbitrary and capricious. Sometimes it is high, sometimes low, and the benefits of baksheesh do not improve the infrastructure or the system. Charging a fee, no matter how it is used, accrues to the government, not to the petty official.

mulp October 12, 2012 at 8:55 pm

Priority queuing doesn’t mean no waits or even predictable waits.

Greg the Dude October 13, 2012 at 5:43 pm

I have lived my whole life in Michigan, except for three years living in Ontario. Crossing the border was a frequent and relatively easy thing to do until recently. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that hour long waits (at times of low traffic) and the priority queue were introduced at the same time. Your point about there being people for whom the priority queue is necessary is certainly true, but those same people used to cross without having to wait an hour without a priority queue. The border officials recognized they had a subset of customers who were willing to pay a much higher price to cross than they were paying, and created a situation where they were able to extract the higher price. In most situations this does not bother me — I can always search for an alternative provider at a lower price — but in this case nobody is allowed to compete.

Sure, in our culture baksheesh is standardized, and posted on the sign, and the proceeds from the baksheesh are divided up amongst the officials. But we still have an environment where you are treated as a second class citizen by petty officials unless you are willing to hand over cash for something that is officially “free”. And the proceeds don’t go to improve anything, except perhaps the budget of the agency collecting it. These are not the people providing the infrastructure required to cross the river, they are the trolls under the bridge deciding who shall pass and who will be eaten.

superdestroyer October 12, 2012 at 6:48 am

The priority system only works as long as too many people do not use it. If enough people pay to cut in line at an amusement park, not only does the benefit of the higher costs goes down but the priority system lower the quality of the experience of the non-priority customers.

Amusement parks have to be careful not to ruin the experience of too many customers. Disney seems to use the fast pass system to help people spend less time in line but limit the systems impact on other customers.

Andrew' October 12, 2012 at 7:42 am

With the Disney fast pass, you are in the line…while you are browsing the gift shop.

Rahul October 12, 2012 at 9:54 am

Well, when that happens you just raise priority-ticket prices.

Ryan October 12, 2012 at 10:33 am

Why refute your first point with your second? I’ve done the Disney thing. I was suspect at first, but pleased in the end. Indeed, it takes strategy, and you don’t have to be rich or poor to manage a strategy.

more anon October 12, 2012 at 10:49 am

+1

8 October 12, 2012 at 6:50 am

They are also copying the model of free-to-play online games.

Ray Lopez October 12, 2012 at 7:04 am

Hey, I got credited by a famous economist…pretty cool for a troll! Now consider that a crude form of such priority queueing [sic, UK] has always existed: if you get on a restricted commuter lane in most US cities you risk getting a fine, yet lots of people chance it all over the US, especially in the DC area with “HOV-2″. If you get caught, you get a $200? fine and points. And for the wealthy commuters of DC, it might be ‘worth it’ to pay an occasional fine. So how to make such a scheme work better? Means-based fines like they have in Finland, a form of differential pricing. The consequence of a monopolist like the state running the roads. A more rational approach to congestion? Have a toll road like the one run to Dulles airport in the DC area. The liberals won’t like that however, since ‘the poor’ won’t be able to clog the roads during rush hour on their way to the welfare and liquor stores.

Peter October 12, 2012 at 10:24 am

The biggest users of the expensive toll lanes on some LA freeways, in the mornings at least, are not the wealthy as predicted. Most are ordinary working stiffs who have to punch time clocks.

Cliff October 13, 2012 at 1:30 am

This is not true as far as I know. HOV fines rapidly escalate after the first to ridiculous levels and are quite frequent if you are cheating. I personally don’t know anyone who does what you say.

Scott Lange October 12, 2012 at 8:07 am

Fact check: White Water is on I-75, not I-85.

fred smalkin October 12, 2012 at 8:26 am

Notice that in amusement parks the knowledge that they could price discriminate preceded priority queueing by many years. The enabling technology here wasn’t economic insight, it was the technology that lets them *hide the line* by alerting people when it’s their turn. That way no one knows who waited less long.

I suppose there is no similar tech for roads.

Rob October 12, 2012 at 9:28 am

A water park I worked at in the 90s had a disguised priority system. Most rides required a tube to ride, and each ride had a set of tubes set aside for that ride. Patrons could also rent their own tube for the day, and take it with them from ride to ride. Each ride that required a tube had two lines – one for patrons that had rented tubes and one for those who didn’t. Generally, lines were much faster if you had a rented tube, but periodically, the line for rented tubes was the longer of the two (often on the slow, cold/rainy days).

TheAJ October 12, 2012 at 10:00 am

People go to the waterpark on a cold rainy day?

Dangerman October 12, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Water Country?

HAVE SOME FUN!

Atlanta resident October 12, 2012 at 9:49 am

The priority lane on the interstate has created a large amount of outrage in the Atlanta area, especially because it wasn’t a new lane but instead a HOV lane (2+ passengers in the vehicle) that got turned into a pay lane that also allows 3+ passenger vehicles to ride for free as long as they have an electronic pass that they set to carpool status at least 30 minutes before traveling.

The ultimate result is that it’s caused more gridlock, according to those who travel on it regularly, on that interstate as the result of 2 passenger car pools transitioning to the regular traffic lanes and breaking up into two separate vehicles as a result of lack of incentives.

Andrew' October 12, 2012 at 9:54 am

We can’t possibly privatize roads and yet they can pull off this thing you describe that I can’t even understand!

Brian Donohue October 12, 2012 at 10:10 am

+1.

Rahul October 12, 2012 at 9:57 am

Where do they put this lane and how do they manage on-ramps, off-ramps and merging. Can priority-pass cars join at any point?

Lewis Lehe October 12, 2012 at 11:49 am

The Atlanta HOT lanes caused gridlock at their inception because the original price was too high, and traffic moved out of the HOT lane into regular lanes. Now the prices run the HOT lane at about capacity. People probably still believe they cause gridlock because the memory of the first month or so is salient. Primacy effect. Also, if you resent the HOT lanes for providing a higher quality of service to those willing (and able) to pay, then it’s a convenient additional belief to think they also make traffic worse.

TheAJ October 12, 2012 at 9:59 am

Global Entry, which allows you to cross through US Customs in as little as 10 minutes (75% of that time dedicated to walking through the airport), is well worth the $100 price if you are a frequent traveler.

On the other hand, priority screening for first class and status passengers, is often slower than the regular passenger TSA line, because despite having fewer people in line, TSA will only have one dedicated security device open for them.

John B. Chilton October 12, 2012 at 10:31 am

Just the other day the BBC had a nice post on the subject of priority queuing,

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19712847

Rahul October 12, 2012 at 10:34 am

Deja vu!

RichmondTom October 12, 2012 at 10:55 am

Glad to see “Queueing” used in the title (although you used “queuing” in the body of the post). It’s the only English language word with five vowels in a row.

Nice!

KLO October 12, 2012 at 11:21 am

It seems to me that this approach is less about improving the experience for the wealthy and more about charging people who want to ride the rides more than those who don’t. The old “county fair” model of amusement parks relied on a fee per ride model using tickets. The best rides might cost four or five tickets, with less popular rides being 2 or 3 tickets per ride. If you wanted to ride a lot, you bought a lot of tickets. If you didn’t want to ride at all like my parents, you didn’t buy any tickets. It would be one thing if the only reason people went to an amusement park was for the rides, but, given that this is not the case, it makes sense to have at least two pricing tiers

Marquis Evrémonde October 12, 2012 at 11:37 am

I came up with this idea centuries ago.

appreciative October 12, 2012 at 11:41 am

+50

GiT October 12, 2012 at 12:20 pm

On this topic:

The Water-Park Scandal and Two Americas in the Raw: Are We a Nation of Line-Cutters, or Are We the Line?

http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/whitewater-flash-pass-12403562

GiT October 12, 2012 at 12:22 pm

In other news, yesterday I discovered I could “promote” my facebook posts for a $7 fee.

Hargreaves October 12, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Everything old is new again. Google “E-Ticket Ride.” Now instead of tickets, amusement parks issue armbands– big whoopie deal. The chief goal of the scheme is to disguise price increases. You see, the “wait in line forever” price stays the same when the “use a shorter line” armband goes on sale. After a while a whole lot of people are using the “shorter line,” making it too long, so another “even shorter lines” armband is introduced. Rinse and repeat at higher prices each time. Advertisements for the park still trumpet the “unlimited rides! (if you wait forever)” price.

Alexey October 13, 2012 at 4:07 am

It works just like bribing, but without the danger of getting caught.

JonF October 13, 2012 at 10:35 am

The priority queueing at Six Flags is of a different sort (and IMO, unethical) than that described on the Atlanta highway. In the Six Flags case the owner is selling something that does not belong to him: the time of the other people waiting in line. That’s basically a form of theft.
The highway example involves the government selling something that it built and not (in principle) taking anything from the people who chose not to make the purchase

athEIst October 13, 2012 at 1:47 pm

No way this cannot make the wait longer for the regular-paying customer. No way can this make the park experience less pleasant for the regular-paying customer. No way can this make the regular-paying customer more likely to go to the Park. No way can this not reduce the gate. Enough to equal the increased revenue from the priority queing??

athEIst October 13, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Five vowels? OK qUEUEIng! But it seems a “U” sound should not take 4 vowels.

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