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Friday, 6 October, 2000, 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK
Good queue guide
Bus queue
Modern classics: the bus queue
By BBC News Online's Sean Coughlan

Queuing has often been seen as a special gift of the British - fair, functional and a bit dull.

But a lecturer at the University of Northumbria has cast doubt on the future of the Great British Queue, saying that his research suggests that the queue is crumbling - and that it wasn't that great in the first place.


In Britain we think of civilisation as first-come, first-served. But in Italy there might not a be single line - but if there's a mother with a young child at the back, she'll be put on the bus first.

David Stewart-David, University of Northumbria

David Stewart-David, a lecturer in logistics and transport, has been examining the nature of queues and how the domestic queue compares with international competitors.

But the belief in the queue as an expression of national culture should be treated as a myth, he says.

"In the post-war years, when the government was trying to cope with shortages, the queue was positively promoted so that it wasn't seen as necessarily bad - but the 'British way of doing things'," he said.

Good queue, bad queue
Good queues
London Eye: "good shape to it - it's zig-zag - there is help available and low stress"

Bad queues
Privatised railways
Health service
Building societies
Supermarkets

The emergence of consumerism has "eroded" this acceptance of the need to wait in line, he says, with evidence from his research that we are no longer as patient.

Threatening the queue is a faster pace of life, higher expectations and a growing intolerance at being kept waiting and Mr Stewart-David's research has identified the points at which queues threaten to break down.

What makes a queue stressful?
Lack of information
Not knowing how long you're going to wait
When the wait is longer than usual
Waiting in unpleasant surroundings
Children

These include when people feel a queue is too long or when the wait exceeds their expectations - three to four minutes is our tolerance level for buying a train ticket - at which point "people visibly begin to look stressed or walk off".

"I've talked to people as they leave queues and they always over-estimate how long they've spent waiting," he says, explaining how queue-angst can make a few minutes seem like forever.

Mr Stewart-David also challenges the idea that Britain is the capital of good queuing, saying that the whole nature of queuing is influenced by local cultural values - and also very practical factors.

South African election
International competition: general election queue in South Africa

"For instance, the bus queue in Britain - a single line of people - is seen as being fair. But this is because we have buses with one entrance. In Poland, buses and trams might have three or four entrances - which creates a different type of queue.

"In Britain we think of civilisation as first-come, first-served. In Italy there might not be a single line - but if there's a mother with a young child at the back, she'll be put on the bus first. It's a different view of civilisation," he said.

The lecturer's research, which began when he was working with colleagues in Poland ("they queue like Britain in the 1960s") has also cast light on the weekly irritation of the supermarket.

Supermarket slow-down

"Supermarkets have thought a great a deal about queues - but there are problems for them. There are some which are just too small to make a difference with queues, but the biggest problem is with the check-out assistants."

According to his interviews with supermarket staff he has found that there is a tendency for check-out workers to work below an "average" speed.

This is caused by faster assistants slowing down to the speed of the average - so as not to embarrass their slower colleagues - while the "slow ones, stay slow", which has an overall effect of dragging down the speed.

He is also unimpressed by the "express lanes" and the ways of getting people with a few purchases through more quickly - which he says often lack flexibly, so there are queues at the express check-out and empty tills elsewhere.

But his probing into queuing was rebuffed by the airports, which he said were "quite secretive and edgy about the whole issue", offering him limited access to find out about the serial queuing that is air travel.

He says that we should not always assume that organisations are working to cut down on queues - and in the case of airlines, the queue, or the promise of a lack of it, can be used as a way of selling products such as first class tickets.

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