Better layouts for queue lines

We have to wait in line. As population and consumerism increases, this becomes a fact of our times - we just have to wait in lines. We often feel excitement when we get someplace and there's no line. The lines we wait in are called queue lines, or quelines. The origin of the name queue is pretty bizarre. An old British word, from the French, a queue is a braid of hair hanging down from the back of the head. That trail, or line, evolved to people waiting in a line that trailed down.

The concept of arranging a line in a back and forth motion could be traced back to the inspiration of watching oxen plow a field in about the 6th century BCE - the farmer would plow a row, turn the oxen around and plow the next row. The word, roughly translated 'as the ox plows' is boustrophedon.

The Etruscans developed this style of going back and forth when writing text by hand. The concept that aided reading efficiency was later used to maintain order in lines of people.

My introduction to the psychology of queuing people in lines

During one summer years ago, I worked in ride operations at Six Flags over Texas in Arlington. I was Assistant Ride Foreman at the Tower - both a superslide and an observation deck. One of our tasks was to monitor the line as people waited for the elevator to the deck at the top of the orange Tower.
Below left: There were two identical, mirror-image quelines for the two elevators. But the elevators would travel at different speeds and one line would invariably move slower than the other. I noticed how this frustrated some people. I also saw that, at the entrance, people were not sure which line to get into - were they both open? Which was better? Do they both go to the same place? Many people would just follow the crowd and often line up on one side only. We would go tell entering people that there were two lines but that made it more frustrating as those people would then be in a much shorter line and people at the back of the long line would see them move to the front of the que house.

So, I experimented. During the times when the que house would not fill up, I closed off one line and used the other line to service both elevators (middle figure). Bingo - it solved all the above problems. The line also moved twice as fast - it was feeding two elevators, not just one. Even though the line was longer, I sensed that people didn't mind the length as much since they were almost constantly moving forward. At a theme park, people would rather move forward than to stand and wait. At the end of the line, we positioned the host who would guide the guests into one of the two elevator holding areas.
I also moved the turnstile from the very end of the line to the second-to-end row. The turnstile slowed people down as they entered into the elevator and moving it allowed people to get through it and gather in the last row. This sped up the process of boarding the elevators. Seeing that the new configuration was successful, I asked the Operations Supervisors to come take a look. I explained the rationale and let them witness the difference. They agreed and decided to rearrange the lines in that que house (right figure). We used the whole area for a single line. It worked well - it improved the guest experience in this que house.

A few principles for better quelines
The time waiting in line remains constant whether there is one line or two, but movement is faster in one line.
According to Richard Larson of MIT, considered to be an authority on lines, the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself. Unoccupied time (standing still) feels longer than occupied time (moving). We prefer to keep moving.
Mirrors are often installed next to elevators - if people have something to do (checking their appearance) the wait for the elevator seems shorter. In some theme parks, long quelines have video monitors, posters, or views of the attraction.
The biggest influence on our feelings about lines has to do with our perception of fairness.
According to the NY Times, the universally acknowledged standard is first-come first-served. The single line serving multiple destinations is the fastest, fairest way to move waiting people. "Next in line, Please." Surveys show that many people will wait longer in line for fast food if the establishment uses a first-come first-served, single queue ordering system as opposed to a multi-queue multi register setup. The single line avoids the instances of "I always get in the slowest line" and "How come that other line is moving faster?"
All else being equal, people who wait less than they anticipated leave happier than those who wait longer than expected.
This is partly why Disney parks overestimate wait times for rides. Guests are pleasantly surprised when they can board a car or boat ahead of schedule. Source: The New York Times, August 2012.
Some line users will be in an unfamiliar environment.
Entrance cues (signs, placement, rope openings) and directions, if necessary, should be easy to see, read, and understand. The system of line layout should be easy to grasp and understand.
There should be an obvious single entrance.
The line waiter should be able to assess the layout and where to begin without having to pause his/her walking progress.
Ideally, the reward should be clearly visible from the line entrance.
The walker can see their destination and the anticipated reward (ticket window, entrance, ordering counter).
An angled rope better conveys direction and motion than one at a right angle.
The line waiter should get closer to his/her destination with each turn.
There is a satisfying feeling of progress if each turn gets one closer, rather than going back to the beginning area; if the space for such a layout exists.
We prefer the apparent shortest route to our destination. More barriers and more turns may convey a more complicated, therefore, longer route.
There should be minimal zigzag pacing in an empty que house.
A staffmember can add/delete rows as necessary or a gate at intersections can allow the user to shortcut to the next row.
Multiple destination windows should be in a convex arc, not concave.
It is easier (and quicker) for a customer to see available windows when arranged in an arc curving towards the viewer, rather than away from the viewer.
Existing architectural landmarks can help guide the first-time user.
A column, arch, or signpost can make it easier to provide directions and a target for the customer.
A line that turns right needs less instruction or education.
Most people are right-handed and will turn right, out of preference or habit. Amusement parks put info guides to the right as one enters and gift shops on the left of the entrance (on the right as you exit).
Minimum wheelchair width and turning radius uses the floor space more efficiently.
The area for the que ropes should occupy a minimal amount of floor space. A line system should have a minimal number of turns.
Some sign considerations
They should be clear and free of useless decoration or text (arrows can be effective). Signs should be located in the line of sight of those approaching the line.
People are looking for a way to get to the counter or cash register and if they physically can’t get there, they’ll seek the opening. This could be achieved using a bright color on the cross pieces of the line and making the opening angling at the opening to look like a funnel - 'Enter here'.
The lines should be regularly monitored and adjusted to minimize line turns.
Respect the user's time, and energy - remove ropes, reposition stanchions, and open up lanes when necessary. Avoid the empty maze. Employees should be alert to a short line and make adjustments to minimize unnecessary walking.
If a crowd sees clear logical cues on where to line up, is guided in a reasonable manner, sees their reward, and is shown some respect, they are more likely to remain orderly. When an entity allows chaos by not clearly showing the way, the crowd is more likely to take the matter into their own hands and behave accordingly.

Some user guidelines that impact complex movement in schools of fish, flocks of birds, swarms of insects, and crowds of humans.
Follow and keep pace with the person in front (if there is one).
Don't invade the personal space of the person in front, but
Keep the space between you and the person ahead to a minimum.
Keep moving.
Your footprint of space should be kept to a minimum - don't spread out belongings, boxes, or luggage.
Avoid holding a spot for others and do not cut in line. Others are in just a hurry and feel just as deserving.

Quelines in the era of a global pandemic
The presence of a queline suggests a place is popular, crowded, or inefficient in how they process people through a 'gate'. Once most people are vaccinated, there may no longer be much importance on distancing and hands-free applications. If any changes are made to quelines, they may be just for a few months to a year (no one knows). Some changes in quelines won't be apparent until large crowds return and owners assess and respond to the impact of a vaccine.
Maintain distance while in line. Many entities do not have space for a line that is 2-4 times longer. But, that issue may be eased:
Some people will continue to stay home and not go out - reducing the number of people waiting in lines.
Capacity limits will reduce the number of people in a line.
People may have gotten used to making ticket purchases through apps, websites, or telephone (and that will likely continue), so lines may be reduced or sped up.
Layout of the lines near checkout and entry.
Grocery and convenience stores will need to rearrange the checkout areas to allow a longer line due to distancing.
Designers may need to alter the end of the line areas to include separate areas or counters for those who have reserved or processed online.
Excess lines should be routed to keep aisles and passageways clear. I have seen cases where people lined up across the hallway or aisle. Sometimes, I will suggest that the line could move to the wall to clear up congestion in the aisle. Covid may have helped us in that regard. Places put distancing stickers on the floor, thereby designating where to line up.

Single lines

How many times have you been in line and another line moved faster? Or the store opened up another register and people behind you get in that line and are checked out before you even get to the cashier? Unforeseen random events, such as a check writer, mispriced item, or price check, can slow the line. In single lines, line stoppers hold up just one register, while the others remain moving. Examples below have each implemented the single line - a wide aisle with the check-out impulse items all along the path.

Lesson: Next-in-line from a single line is the fairest and most efficient system to check out customers.

Short animation of the single line advantage, from

Stanchion positioning
Often, I see the stanchions (the poles holding the ropes) positioned in an orderly fashion, but inefficiently - too much wasted space. The purpose of these stanchions and ropes is to help guide the user on where to go, maintain a sense of order, and create a fair environment of waiting-one's-turn.

Poor placement of stanchions can create longer lines and an inefficient use of floor space. We seek the shortest path to our destination. We are likely to round the corners as tight as we can - it gets us to our destination sooner. So if the stanchions are set as in the photos above, we will round the end stanchion to shorten the line. This action may be partly caused by the notion that people may not like to be corralled, to be herded like cattle. We've seen people duck under ropes or remove the rope to get through. In the diagrams below, note the wasted space and how the improved layout accommodates more people in the same space.

'Normal' layout. Wasted space. Improved layout.

Lines going lengthwise may increase capacity.
Lines that run lengthwise, rather than widthwise, can accommodate more people. People tend to cut the corners which create the wasted space. Minimizing the number of corners allows more people to line up in the same amount of space.

Respect the flow of traffic.

Above left: A proposal for the queline layout at a coat check in a large convention facility. The original plan had the quelines (in the darker grey areas) jutting out into the main trafficway. Once the traffic and crowd (green below) was plotted, the location for the queline (below right) became clear - those white areas between the escalators and the elevators. That placement (above right) also allowed the line to have a single obvious entry, begin at the column landmark, end at the second column landmark, and allow users to move toward that column destination.

There should be minimal pacing with empty rows.
Although queline ropes and stanchions provide a fair and orderly system for managing waiting users - one of the areas that can bog down efficiency is when the line shortens and the user has to still walk the back & forth lines. The burden is currently on the host entity to have someone watch and manage the lines by opening up short-cuts in the que.
A solution that can be more efficient, is more user-friendly, and saves on staff costs is to have short-cut gates that the line walker can open as necessary to shorten the distance walked. Short-cut gates solve the frustration experienced by all who have zigzagged their way through empty rows - it provides a more direct route through the system. It does invite an easier way for one to be a line-cutter. The ultimate option is, when feasible, to have staff present to maintain efficient line lengths, answer user questions, and add a human element to customer service.

One solution: ShortCutQ.

Clerk booths/windows should arc towards the customer
It is easier (and quicker) for a customer to see available windows when arranged in an arc curving towards the viewer, rather than away from the viewer.

A queue house in the shape of a funnel
While having dinner with the Six Flags Vice President of Design (I suspect Six Flags has more linear feet of quelines than any other entity), he mentioned the idea of a que house in the shape of a funnel - a triangular wedge shape. A brilliant idea - the line walker turns into each row anticipating fewer steps with a heightened sense of progress and accomplishment.

Progressively fewer steps in each row as one approaches the destination.
Continually moving closer to that destination.

As the wait time between corner turns decreases, there is a perception of the line moving faster.

A few examples
The Container Store

I was in their store on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. The grey angled rectangular mass to the left is a display island of products and the grey vertical rectangle is a structural column. Note the wasted spaces in the corners, especially the awkward dead end at the last turn in the line. Some people would approach the entrance but move to the right of the rope - between the rope and the column - the column serves as a visual cue or landmark. Since there was no line while I was there, I rearranged the ropes as shown in the 'after' diagram. I angled the entry line to better guide people. In the 'Even better' diagram, the column serves as a landmark starting point, a longer row is created in the entry area, and the product display is moved so that people waiting can walk around both sides of the island.

Starbucks SoHo
An angled line conveys direction and motion better than a horizontal or vertical line.

This line turns around a pole (note the scuffs of the foot traffic on the floor - showing how we curve in an arc, rather than turning sharply like a military drill. Since the view of much of the line is blocked by the column, I angled the rope to serve as a visual cue to turn to the left. I also lengthened the ropes (there was plenty of slack) and angled the 'Enter here' sign slightly to convey which side of the sign to enter. When I checked days later, this new arrangement was still in place. Update: the store has been completely remodeled and this arrangement is no longer necessary.

The Guggenheim Museum

I had already moved the end stanchions to accommodate more people. I would have recreated the original poor layout and shot a photo of that but the guard said no and kept watching me.

Examples of the angled end ropes

The Empire State Building

B&H superstore, Manhattan. Below: the interim 9/11 Memorial.

Inefficient layout: The Bush Presidential Center

Left: As is normal, visitors line up behind other people, rather than noticing that there are 4 separate lines. Most visitors, who all enter from the Security line, cannot even see the left lines (map below left).
Middle: The unseen two lines block the exit lane from the exhibit galleries and Bistro Cafe. Fortunately, nobody realizes they are there, so I witnessed no one in those lanes and, therefore, no blocking of the exit aisle.
Right: the serpentine queline for Audio Tours is at the back of the ticket counter.

Left: The small map mounted on one of the stanchions shows the layout: Entrance from Security in the lower right, exhibits and food service are located at the top, off the map, and the building exit and gift shop is at lower left. Notice the 4 straight lines for Ticket Sales.
This is another great example of the architect or designer making decisions while looking at the plan, instead of seeing it through the eyes of the user. In the plan, a round counter with lines leading to each side seems okay. But, no user sees it that way. The user enters and sees a counter behind some columns, some stanchions and ropes, and some people at a register. "That must be the ticket line, let's get behind those people."
Above right: such a simple solution. Use the more fair and easier-to-understand single line format, free the main aisles for entry and include sales of the Audio Tour with the ticket (a package option) so the customer doesn't have to get in 2 lines and make 2 transactions.

Whole Foods Store

A ridiculous system: first, you get into one of 5 lines (gambling that you picked the fast moving one) each one color-coded with banners overhead. Then a voice recording and a monitor display the next open register based on the colored line. Confusing, awkward, and unfair.
Better: there should simply be a single line - the monitor and voice direct you to the next open register. Easier. More fair. More intuitive. And a line that moves 5 times faster.
But, good news. Above right: The flagship store in Austin now has this single-que for the express registers.

Will Rogers OKC airport

These extensions are totally useless - a waste of stanchions and rope. Notice how the line would just go almost straight down the row - no appreciable zigzag.

Museum of Modern Art

Remember: people will cut corners - the fewer corners, the longer the line. These rows could have been oriented the long way (fewer corners) and accommodated more people. Also, the museum staff needs to be more attentive to opening up shortcuts when the line is short.

Taco Bell

One of the best examples of an inefficient layout. The rails are so far apart that they don't really form a que line. It is also not intuitive where to go so the store had to put up a big sign as you enter that says 'Enter' with an arrow. If there is no line, most people still ignore the sign, ignore the que line, and walk around and right up to the counter.
Below: another example of absolutely useless barriers (also in a QSR Tex-Mex place):

Traffic flow in an adventure park

Existing and Proposed.
Straightening the staircase creates additional space - a new room - and a more efficient traffic flow.
It is more considerate and a better experience for staff and guests - fewer footsteps, more intuitive, and less chaotic.
Tables are oriented to better maximize access to the window view.
The angled rail corners help provide visual cues of the sections, are more inviting/welcoming, and facilitate traffic flow.
Family restrooms Families are likely conditioned to find family rooms (green dots) next to the regular restrooms (the existing location will require directions away from the restrooms).

Restrooms A waiting guest (blue dot) may not even see the 5 stalls around the corner. Notice the backtracking of paths (blue) and the waste of space used for numerous aisles (especially for a woman in a wheelchair). The proposed blue path shows a simple, efficient, and progressive movement through the stops: 1. Wait/enter, 2. Stall, 3. Sink, and 4. Exit.
Arena Entry The entry doors located at the end of the main trafficway provides a focal point, visually creating a sense of entry. The traffic flow through the entry/exit rooms is efficient and intuitive - enter at one end and exit at the other end, progressing towards the arena.
Double doors All doorways into and out of the Arena are double wide, to move people through faster. Guests avoid having to line up in single file.
Traffic Jam Widening the major walkway between the spiral stairs and the Arena exit will alleviate some congestion and allow a larger entry/waiting area.

The improved traffic flow through the entry/gear/exit rooms is efficient and intuitive - enter at one end and exit at the other end, progressing towards the arena.
All doorways into and out of the arena are double wide, to move people through faster. Guests avoid having to line up in single file.
The emergency exit hallway is used to enlarge the entry/waiting area.
Line layout Of the 2 quelines going to the loading areas, the shorter line on the right will likely back up and block the entry area.

Park Entry The entry area looks like it may get congested. Entering and exiting guests will mingle with the cross-park guests in a relatively small area. The entry area may be where first-time guests stop to figure out where to go or to take pictures. They will be entering right into the midst of a main traffic artery. Also, future pandemics will likely encourage architects to consider better distancing in future projects. I explored opening up the areas on either side of the main entry to show one option for more space:

The implied stanchions and ropes
An interesting alternative - the rope lines are marked and embedded into the floor. Even though they are just a guide to help control traffic, it seems to work. New Yorkers are conditioned and comfortable with forming lines. It sure does look better, is easier to maintain, and one doesn't have to attach or detach ropes as the length of the line varies.

A line of residents who are seeking rations of water forms on the playground of a school in Sendai, Japan, after the earthquake and tsunami of March, 2011.
Below left: In a museum to denote 'step no closer to the painting'.

Above right and below: Lines and arrows to encourage a clear exit path from the metro at Lausanne-Gare station in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Below left: A great idea to show an open spot, teller, clerk, or ticket window. Below right: In a Disney park que house, there was a snack stand and water fountain. Both would help the line walker feel more comfortable and less antsy (this line was over 90 minutes.)

Better TSA queue lines

At the OKC airport, these TSA agents are standing in just about the worst place they could find - blocking the trafficway exit lane for deplaning passengers. Just not thinking of their place in the environment and their impact on their surroundings.
Lesson: We are a part of a larger organism, our actions and attitudes affect those around us. Empathy is considerate.

Above right: A few days later, at the Newark airport, I asked which security line was shorter: Premier Access or Economy. Premier Access, the agent told me. I got in that line, but quickly noticed that the Economy line was moving faster. I mentioned that to the guy behind me who had this pissed-off look on his face. He nodded his agreement. A couple behind him commented that someone that got at the end of the Economy line was already at the ID check desk. Okay, this is not good. One line shouldn't be moving that much faster than the other. Our line snaked towards the TSA Agent who was directing passengers to the one of 4 check desks. I spoke to the agent, Ryan (in the white shirt and blue gloves), and pointed out he was directing the Economy line to 1 of 3 agents, leaving only the 4th agent to check both the Premier Access and employee lines.
Ryan replied, "Just a minute", and went back to directing the Economy line, stepping away and ignoring me. I spoke to him again and pointed out the discrepancy. He gave me some lame excuse, so I asked to speak with a supervisor. I never saw Ryan motion or call for one. I asked Ryan again. This time his excuse was that the problem was not his fault, it was with the airline's arrangement of the ropes. Now, I was in the row by the employee entrance - an older agent walked by and I explained the issue to him. He nodded understandingly and said he would take care of it. Our line moved faster - he had told the Economy agent closest to Premier Access to pull some people from the Premier Access line.

Left: 1 agent for both Premier and employees versus 3 agents for just Economy. Right - proposed solution: Assign and apportion the number of agents to more fairly serve all people passing through the security line: 2 agents for Economy and 2 agents for Premier Access and employees. That is much better and much more fair than the 1 and 3 split.
I realize that as a Government agency, there is little incentive to be efficient - there is no competition and few alternatives for the passenger. We can't boycott, we can't take our business elsewhere; so we shuffle along through an inefficient disrespectful system. Rarely, does anyone speak up in protest (we often get just what we deserve.)

Making waiting in line seem shorter
Wouldn’t it be great if retail customers or theme park guests could step right up to the counter or enter the ride vehicle. Yes, but a variety of factors make that unfeasible. The cattle stockyards layout can be a bit overwhelming to those who just entered the line. To help the guest perceive a shorter wait while waiting in line, these options could help:
Personal comfort
• Heat (or cold) can be uncomfortable and make the wait seem even longer.
• If the quehouse is outdoors, consider shade canopies, fans, and air conditioning.
Distractions to fight boredom and anxiety
• Video screens showing previews or short promos.
• Themed quehouses to help build anticipation.
• Planting beds, landscaping
• Install site-specific apps for users to play or read on their devices to occupy their time in line.
Intuitive and reasonable traffic flow
• Obvious and clear entrance to the line.
• Break up long straight rows with turns or separate sections.
• Interrupt lines with landscaping beds or merchandising islands.

The waiting area - some thoughts
How to integrate those people with on-line appointments with the non-appointment waiters to appear more fair. Appointment people arrive and get called to a window before those waiting - is there a way for the long waits to know who had signed up online? Or  some other method?
The waiting room seemed to have a distinct class distinction - those who had limited access to the internet had the longer wait. And those who had prepared by bringing something to do (book, device, laptop) versus those just sitting.
In large waiting rooms with digital boards showing the order and who is up next, why couldn't it be a more comfortable area rather than just rows of chairs in a severe arrangement. Why not comfy chairs in groupings that could break up the visual starkness, seats at tables where one could work or study, calming low-contrast colors (no chaotic patterns), with easily accessible vending machines.
The person entering the space is likely a bit stressed and uncomfortable (we've heard all the horror stories). Instructions and procedures should be obvious, easy to read, and very clear.
The length of wait time can appear to go by faster if the waiter is more comfortable and has more options for activities (walking, eating, drinking, reading, studying).

The script - what to say to the line user
The check-out interaction contributes greatly to the overall shopping experience since it is the one place where there is assured to be a customer and employee connection. A shopper’s assessment of the store and experience can be greatly influenced by the cashier’s voice, tone, words, and gestures.
Some options to message the next customer: an arm wave, verbal ‘Next in line,” electronic info signs, and red and green lights.

Some wording criteria:
Distance from the cashier to the head of the line. If too far to be easily heard, then maybe use signs, lights, and colors.
The number of registers - if many, too many voices might be confusing.
The position of the queline. The line should end at a spot where the customer at the head of the line could see all the registers to more easily notice a vacancy. And a shorter walk from line to counter results in a shorter wait.

It might be preferable for the more personal human contact and connection of having the cashier speak directly to the customer in line. “Sir/Ma'am, I can help you.” “I can help the next guest.” Even “Next in line, please.” or "Next on line, please." (which does seem more appropriate than the terse, but sometimes necessary, “Next”).

When opening up a new lane the new cashier should take the next customer in line, not the customer at the end of an adjacent line. Those who had been waiting witness the unfair treatment. It is easier to open up a new register when the new register is part of a bank of machines at a single line.

queue: word origin
queue, que or q - they're all pronounced the same.

When the British stand in queues (as they have been doing at least since 1837, when this meaning of the word is first recorded in English), they may not realize they form a tail. The French word queue from which the English word is borrowed is a descendant of Latin cauda, meaning "tail". French queue appeared in 1748 in English, referring to a plait of hair hanging down the back of the neck. By 1802 wearing a queue was a regulation in the British army, but by the mid-19th century queues had disappeared along with cocked hats. Latin cauda is also the source of Italian coda, which was adopted into English as a musical term (like so many other English musical terms that come from Italian). A coda is thus literally the "tail end" of a movement or composition.

Alternate names
Z line or S line since those letters mimic the path of the waiting line.
wait line or waitline
next-line or nexinline as in "Next in line, please." ("Next on line, please.")