Operations research is the discipline of making better decisions. We have to solve the right problem to better inform decisions, and sometimes solving the right problem doesn’t involve math.
One of my favorite stories about solving the right problem comes from MIT Professor Dick Larson (Dr. Queue!). He summarized his story in an article in Slate about queuing theory [Link]:
Midcentury New York featured a rush-hour crisis—not out on the roads, but inside office tower lobbies. There weren’t enough elevators to handle the peak crowds. Complaints were mounting. “One solution would have been to dynamite the buildings and build more elevator shafts,” says Larson. “But someone figured out the real problem isn’t just the duration of a delay. It’s how you experience that duration.” Some buildings installed floor-to-ceiling mirrors near the elevators and, entertained by their own reflections and by the flirting that sometimes ensued, people stopped complaining quite as much about the wait time.
A NY Times article about queuing also contains this story [Link].
A recent article in The Atlantic about how public transit riders perceive waiting times [Link] reminded me of the elevator story. The perception of waiting time is one of many issues involved in incentivizing people to use public transit. If we can understand what makes for acceptable and unacceptable perceived wait times, then maybe we can mitigate what feels like long, torturous waiting times. It turns out that we just need mature trees by bus stops (much like the mirrors by the elevators!):
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 five 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. According to the data, 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.
The article is about a paper by Marina Lagune-Reutler, Andrew Guthrie, Yingling Fan, and David Levinson (@trnsprttnst) at the University of Minnesota.
What are your favorite and least favorite transit stops?
- pumpkin patches and queuing theory
- the psychology of queues
- queuing, cutting in line, and social justice