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OM in the News: The Psychology of Queuing at the Bus Stop

August 29, 2015

busAnyone who’s ever relied on public transportation knows that waiting can be the worst part. Even with apps that provide arrival estimates, riders can still find themselves at a loss—straining in hopes of seeing train lights in the distance, or checking phones while wondering what on earth is holding up a delayed bus. But a new study, reports The Atlantic (Aug. 18, 2015), suggests that the feelings of frustration associated with waiting can differ significantly depending on how filthy a station is, and that simple improvements could make wait time seem much shorter.

In general, the U. of Minnesota study found that riders typically overestimate shorter wait times and underestimate longer wait times (i.e. riders who waited for about 2 minutes felt like they’d waited for 5, but riders who waited for 10 minutes felt like they’d only stood around for 9.)

But that general principle was beholden to strong external factors: Riders who waited at stops where there was lots of pollution and traffic significantly overestimated their wait times. The effect was especially pronounced for those who were waiting for longer than 5 minutes, with those who waited for their rides for 10 minutes in areas that they felt were noisier and dirtier reporting that they had waited for over 12 minutes. Researchers also found a simple mitigating factor: trees. The presence of mature trees helped make wait times feel less painful, for both short and long waits, and even in areas where other negative factors were present.

Coping with tardy, inefficient, and dilapidated transit is the reality of commuters in many of America’s major metro areas. And in some places, things seem to be getting worse, not better. For instance, train delays increased 45% between 2013 and 2014 in New York City. Improving the experience of public transportation could start with something as simple as sprucing up aging and dilapidated stops, increasing their safety, and adding greenery. It might not lessen the queue time, but it may seem shorter.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Provide other examples of how a queue can seem to move faster.
  2. What else can operations managers do to lower the traveler’s frustration level?
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