No. 2971: WAITING

by Andrew Boyd

Click here for audio of Episode 2971

Today … we wait. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Congested roadways. Doctors’ offices. Traffic lights. Busy as we are, we still spend much of our lives waiting — an estimated thirty-seven billion hours a year in the U.S. alone. So it should come as no surprise that engineers study waiting.

Man waiting in crowd
Man waiting in a large crowd (Flickr Image)

And the technological progress we’ve made is phenomenal. Yet, for all our advances, one stands out in particular. And the story that’s told about it is lore among waiting-line engineers.

In the mid twentieth century occupants of a high rise office tower complained about the waiting time for elevators. During peak hours the wait could last up to a couple of minutes. When several tenants threatened to break their leases, the building’s manager called in an engineering firm to take a look at the problem. The firm came back with three recommendations: install faster elevators, add more elevators, or use a computer control system to manage elevator movement. In the end, all three options were deemed uneconomical and the manager was told he’d just have to live with the problem.

View of Woolworth Building
View of Woolworth Building (Wikipedia Image)

In desperation the manager called together his staff for a brainstorming session. Many ideas were tossed about. All were shot down — except one. Why, asked a young associate, were people upset about a wait of only a few minutes? In a moment of genius he surmised that the problem wasn’t the waiting, it was about how people felt about the waiting. Given something to distract them, the wait would seem less onerous. He suggested installing mirrors near the elevators on the ground floor. Complaints ceased. The problem was solved.

The experience of waiting, we’ve learned, is as much about psychology as technology. We get bored when we wait. And worse, in our boredom we find ample time to fret over the unfairnesses of waiting. We curse the slow driver in front of us when he makes the light but we don’t. We feel regret when picking the slow checkout line at the grocery store; anger when someone who arrives after us is served first.

Waiting in line at a food store
Waiting in line at food store (Wikipedia Image)

So waiting-line engineers do their best to keep our minds off of waiting. Magazines and now televisions are staples in waiting rooms. And fortuitously for those who make us wait, we’ve discovered our own, endlessly versatile form of distraction: the smart phone.

Disney has long been a respected industry leader in managing lines. From controlling how much of a line you see, to making every footstep part of a themed activity, Disney engineers do their best to help you forget. It’s not a line you’re waiting in, it’s all part of a magical experience.

Space Mountain queue
Space Mountain Queue (Wikipedia Image)

I don’t mean to downplay technology — the math and science behind the scenes. Without it, we’d spend a lot more time waiting. But there’s more to waiting than just time. And that’s something good engineers always need to keep in mind.

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

R. Ackoff and D. Greenberg. Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008. Accessed September 15, 2014.

S. Stevenson. “What You Hate Most About Waiting in Line (It’s Not the Length of the Wait.)” Slate, June 1, 2012. See: http://www.slate.com/articles/business/operations/2012/06/queueing_theory what_people_hate_most_about_waiting_in_line_.html Accessed September 15, 2014.

A. Stone. “Why Waiting Time is Such Torture.” New York Times, August 18, 2012. See also: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/opinion/sunday/why-waiting-in-line-is-torture.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2& Accessed September 15, 2014.

This episode was first aired on September 18, 2014.