Benjamen Walker has a new radio documentary out for the BBC (MP3), all about waiting on line. It's definitely worth a listen. I especially appreciated the distinction between "serpentine" first-come first-served queues of the kind you get at banks and airports, and separate queues of the kind you get at most supermarkets. It always drove me nuts when Duane Reade drugstores had the separate queues, because I kept getting stuck with a tube of toothpaste behind someone with a cart full of stuff, watching people fly through the next register. I'm really glad they've gone serpentine.
I have to say that while I share Walker's concerns about inequality, I have a problem with the overall thrust of his thesis. I'm aware that people generally don't like being called "myopic," but I can't think of a better word. Let me know if you have suggestions.
My problem with Walker's approach to "priority queueing" is the same as my frustration with Richard Brodsky's arguments against congestion pricing, or the Free Public Transit campaigns, or the typical liberal opposition to raising the price of just about anything. It's based on a limited view of its subject, in this case queuing, and focuses in on a local pattern of inequality while ignoring the wider inequalities that exist.
In all of Walker's examples, he presents an existing system without inequalities, and describes a "priority queuing" that allows people to get what they want faster by paying more. But in all those cases, if you zoom out you find that there was always inequality; it has just been realigned on a finer scale, or perhaps in a more blatant way.
Before I get into the exact examples, there's a clear inaccuracy in Walker's story, one that shouldn't have gotten past the fact-checkers. In a segment on the I-85 Express lanes in Atlanta, one of his sources claims that "they kicked the carpools out of the hot lanes, slowing down all the other lanes." Walker himself repeated this in an interview with Mike Pesca on the Brian Lehrer Show. It's not true, and it should be corrected.
It seemed funny that they would be called "hot lanes," since "HO/T" stands for "high occupancy/toll," meaning that you can use them if you either have high occupancy or pay a toll. And in fact the PeachPass FAQ says, "Three person carpools, vanpools, motorcycles, Alternative Fuel Vehicles, and transit will be able to use the HOT lanes without paying but are still required to register for a Peach Pass account prior to using the roadway." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution confirms, "Three person carpools, vanpools, motorcycles, Alternative Fuel Vehicles, and transit will be able to use the HOT lanes without paying but are still required to register for a Peach Pass account prior to using the roadway."
These "hot lanes" in Atlanta have been inserted into a system where the very rich have had helicopters for decades and chauffeurs for centuries, and the very poor have no cars. Airplanes have boarded first class passengers before coach for as long as I can remember. Was it ever any different? Maybe back when the middle class couldn't afford air travel at all. Atlanta, remember, is the place that gave Raquel Nelson a higher penalty than the driver of the car that hit her son.
Amusement parks? There are multiple amusement parks in a given area, and they probably already practice some kind of price discrimination. I'm sure that wealthy people who don't want to wait on line at Six Flags can pay for other options, like jet skis. And community colleges - people with more money can get an education at a private college without waiting. Before you could buy Gold Tech Support, the support was always better for IBM customers than for Emachines customers, and people who assembled their computers from parts got no support at all.
That's only scratching the surface. People with money have long been able to jump the queue in nightclubs and restaurants, and shop in stores with shorter lines. Just compare the lines in Brooks Brothers or Ann Taylor to those at Marshall's, Conway or Ross's. If you're prepared to bribe someone you can get all kinds of special treatment; in 2003, Esquire ran two great articles by Tom Chiarella on what you can get for a twenty dollar bill. Usually you don't even have to do anything as crass as bribery, you just have to look like you're going to spend some money.
In the end, I am just as disturbed as Walker at the idea that something can be so much easier for people who have more money. But I recognize that it's always been that way. These new high-tech "priority queues" are just a rearrangement of that inequality, not creating something new. There may be problems with that rearrangement, but you'd have to dig deeper to find them.