Why Britons love to queue

From The Economist:

Hundreds of thousands of Britons have responded to the death of Queen Elizabeth II in a very British way: by queuing. A line to see the queen lying in state started to form on September 12th, two days before viewings in Westminster Hall began. By the afternoon of September 15th the estimated waiting time in London was over eight hours. It will continue, day and night, until 6.30am on September 19th, the morning of her funeral. As the line snaked for miles along the Thames, observers reacted appreciatively. One tweet called The Queue “the greatest bit of British performance art that has ever happened”. But is queuing the best way to do things?

Organisers needed a way to allocate scarce resources, or in this case, limited slots to file through Westminster Hall past the coffin. An ideal system would give spots to those who value them the most, with everyone having an equal shot at securing one. A queue effectively rations out the spots to those who turn up first—and who are willing to wait. An alternative might have been a lottery, with spots randomly allocated to a subset of those who applied, as was deployed for a concert to mark the queen’s Platinum Jubilee in June. Or even perhaps some kind of market, with prices for each time slot set high enough to balance supply and demand. To visit Buckingham Palace, for example, one must buy a ticket.

As a rationing mechanism, a queue has some advantages. Participating in a line that could stretch overnight, or at least several hours, is a strong signal of one’s eagerness. It also reduces the risk that those who cannot afford to pay for the privilege are shut out. But it has drawbacks. Although participants are not paying money for their spot, they are paying in time and comfort. Economists fret that a queue such as this favours those without much else to do and excludes those who cannot, for example, afford to skip work. Others, such as the frail and the sick, might not be able to access the queue at all.

The alternatives reduce the inefficiency of long waits. But they have their own disadvantages. A lottery system risks those who feel very strongly about seeing the queen losing out to someone lucky who does not care very much. A market-based system will allocate spots based on who values the experience—and who is also most able to pay. That would seem distasteful and unfair. A study published in 1977, by Martin Weitzman, then of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showed that, in cases where needs were more equally distributed or where income was more unequally distributed, rationing (of which queuing is one form) outperformed pricing in its ability to allocate things to whoever needed them most.

Link to the rest at The Economist

5 thoughts on “Why Britons love to queue”

  1. Sigh… “Journalists” these days.

    1) Queues are not some peculiarity of our British cousins across the pond. Directly comparable – look up some photographs of the very long line that formed to pass by JFK’s body in the Capitol Rotunda. Not so directly comparable, but still completely voluntary, the long queues that form here for a major rock concert, movie release, or much anticipated book release (five hours myself in a queue for the final Harry Potter – thank you, children…).

    2) Any kind of “equitable” distribution of “tickets,” such as a lottery scheme, will immediately devolve into a market. (Not to mention a field day for forgers.)

    3) This is almost certainly a “once in a lifetime” event, which makes it understandable even for those who don’t care that much about Her Majesty’s reign – unless His Majesty Charles III dies much younger than his mother. Twenty-three years isn’t quite as long to wait, but a very large number of people will want to say “I was there” (and have more to tell if they can say “both times”).

    Edit – found this in The Sunhttps://www.thesun.co.uk/news/19750820/queen-lying-in-state-live-queue-tracker-how-long-start/ There is some provision for the less hardy.

    The main queue has step-free access and there is also an accessible route which begins at Tate Britain.
    Timed entry slots will be issued for the accessible route queue starting at Tate Britain, along Millbank and then to the Palace of Westminster.

  2. The English system of queuing is one that America followed, until recently. The now-common methods of ‘cutting in line’ (those that do it have NO idea how much others in the line perceive this as High Disrespect), pushing (many of the Central European, African, and Asian countries do with without a qualm), and otherwise bypassing others in the queue have made this custom obsolete, except among the Anglo-Northwest European populations.
    As I am 98% Northwestern European descent, I was raised to take violations of that custom as unthinkable, and those that disregarded the norms of queuing as barbarians.

    • I don’t think the British love to queue, but we do really dislike queue jumpers. This is one of the few things that drives me to make a public protest. Of course, there is no universal agreement as to whether you are allowed to hold a place for a friend, though if you are holding it for your whole rugby team you will attract opprobrium.

    • Dunno which barbarians you’ve encountered but any such had better have good health plans if they try it down here. People waiting for a couple hours under a bright sun have short fuses.
      After the hurricane, quakes, and the pandemic good queue etiquette is a survival trait. 🙂


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