Why we queue

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By Geronimo L. Sy

IT is a life of queues if you believe me. From the time we queue in our mom’s womb to await our order of birth, to the end when we wait for our turn at the cremation chamber or the procession to the cemetery, it is always a line-up. Either earlier, or later or right on the dot, it doesn’t matter. We start and end with lines anyway.

So why the frustration with the queues at the airports, the MRT/LRT stations, the UV express terminals, the entries to carparks? Why the constant complaints over lines at the DFA, LTO, and the delays in shipments and clearances? Why the desperation in traffic in all our cities, congestion in court cases and held-up of business permits?

A queue is in the natural order of things. Any living organism or dynamic system allows for a state when there is not always a perfect match of services and providers. Either people who want or need the service waits, or the providers are increased to a point where it is not economically feasible. Then the entity collapses. The basic questions are distilled to three:

One, is the wait reasonable? Society functions on the assumption that we are all rational and hence reasonable, beings even if experience teaches us otherwise. When ordering at a fastfood counter, the availability of the next burger is counted in 5 to 10 minutes. When calling for pizza takeout, the standard seems to be 30 minutes. Otherwise, the delivery boy pays for the price of the pizza.

In church and lining up for communion, 15 minutes is the maximum period from chapels to cathedrals. When buying tickets for movies or concerts, 15 minutes is already long unless it is a blockbuster.

We don’t hear about catastrophic queues from these examples. Nobody dies of hunger or from lack of entertainment or boredom.

How long do we wait for a page to load? In the Philippines, this can take minutes when internet speeds are now reckoned in milliseconds. How long to a document from the bureaucracy? If it is your own personal document, the waiting time is days and weeks. If it is related to business, it is weeks to months.

How long is the line to enter NAIA? How long are the lines for immigration and x-ray checks? I leave it up to the readers to determine what is reasonable. The citizenry may not mind crowded spaces if the queues move fast. But if the queues are queuing, this is no longer reasonable. When one has to line up along steep, unsafe and unclean stairs to buy an LRT token, line up again for security purpose, line up again to insert the token, line up again to wait for the overflowing carriages, line up again to enter to find breathing space, line up again to get ready to exit, line up again to insert token, is it reasonable?

This is equally true for businesses when they operate — queuing at customs, at City Hall, by the road before the window period, and for BIR to close a case. People may not die but the damage to incomes and livelihoods and injury to efficiency and competitiveness are real.

This is specially true for the string of cases in court. Imagine final decisions that are made 30 years after the dispute arose? The simplest cases take at least one year to resolve. As a result, properties lay idle, infrastructure decays, accounts emptied and peace of mind corroded.

Two, there are ways to manage queues. There is a field of study called queuing theory. To illustrate, Hong Kong airport uses one, single queue that snakes to immigration. It may be visually daunting upon arrival but going through it is not a pain in the neck. Singapore airport adopts the multiple lines one for each counter and it is always a breeze. Different queues for different conditions.

There are other methods like assigning a queuing supervisor, a triage guy, signage indicating the estimated waiting time, feedback on the service, use of automated gates and at the very least, adequate space and ventilation. Sadly, all of these are absent here.

Three, are the queues natural? Intervals are part of nature. Patience is a virtue. But the situations above are all made by and imposed by man. The queuing times even make the dangerous assumption that one has all the requirements (original, certified, photocopy, reasonable or not), and that there is no extortion or corruption. The assumptions are wrong and these kill slowly.

What is the solution to unnatural queues? Even as we understand the reason for the existence of lines in society, it is not inevitable that life in this country is a life of unreasonably tiring, wasteful and expensive queues. This requires another time.