Queues. Or not.

They used to have this system in the Post Office. What would happen was you’d go in, and presuming you wanted to buy a stamp or send a parcel or something – the basic, run-of-the-mill Post Office functions – you’d get in a queue with everyone else. Once you got to the front of the queue you’d wait for a big digital display to update with a counter number for you to go to, accompanied by a generic male or female voice to the same effect. Off you’d go to the counter, job done.

Not a perfect system; if for example you wanted the one special counter where they’d check your passport or driving licence application for you, as far as I could see you had to queue up anyway then wait at the front of the queue for that counter to become available. I may have been wrong on this, but never mind. The queue itself was generally manageable and entirely preferable to The Way Things Used To Be, whereby each counter would have its own queue and you’d be forced into a game of Post Office Roulette, tormented by the certain knowledge that every other queue would move faster than yours. The Big Queue might look enormous at first, but it filters off to a number of counters and so moves at a reasonable pace, and it’s fair on everyone.

At least, it was. Last week I went into the Post Office and there was no queue at all, just people milling around, clutching numbered tickets and staring at a big digital display. Yes, they’d abandoned the Big Queue and opted for the Deli Counter system. So now when you go into the Post Office you have to first go to a touch-screen terminal (and if that’s too baffling for you then there’s a member of staff standing next to it whose sole purpose appears to be to point out the blindingly obvious fact that you need to touch the screen just there), get your numbered ticket and then stand around and wait for your number to come up.

Brilliant! If you’re running a deli counter in a supermarket, that is. Only a tiny proportion of the people in a supermarket want to get something at the deli counter at any given time, so there aren’t too many people standing about, waiting. Install the same system in the Post Office and you end up with practically everyone in there milling around.

Milling around, of course, has an entirely different personality to the process of standing in a queue. When you’re in a queue you tend to suspend your usual rules about personal space, whereas if you’re, you know, just standing about, normal rules apply and the entire Post Office quickly fills out with people all over the place. That’d probably be a medium sized queue in the normal, sensible scheme of things.

It looks untidy. It looks like any of the scenes from the final montage in Dawn of the Dead, only without the jaunty music. And I imagine that touch screen ticket machine didn’t come cheap, either. Not to mention the cost of paying a member of staff to stand next to it. And I dread to think what’ll happen when the system inevitably fails, like at least one of the self-service tills in M&S seems to do on a daily basis. I particularly dread to think what’ll happen if it fails around Christmas time.

At least it’s not as bad as Bath’s new bus station, where they appear to be actively discouraging queuing by putting up dirty great noticeboards in the middle of the concourse, right where you’d expect a queue to go. It’s just about tolerable now, but come the autumn and the return of the students, many of whom don’t even get the idea of standing in a nice orderly line when there’s already one there, there’s going to be a fucking riot.

What’s wrong with a queue? I’m all for progress. I love progress. What I don’t love is the adoption of some pointless new system, probably in order to create some new kind of corporate image. Hey! The Post Office isn’t like some regimented bureaucratic nightmare any more! It’s a groovy place where you can kind of hang out and then maybe rap with one of our customer service representatives about buying some stamps! And as for the bus station, I’m blaming the architects. I’ll bet you anything they came up with some swish 3D visualisations showing off their light and airy concourse, and rather than spoil it with droves of people packed into miserable lines, they populated it with a smattering of clip art folk standing around like they’re at an art gallery launch rather than waiting for a bus. Which to be fair is probably the closest frame of reference that your average architectural studio actually has.

Looks great in a presentation, I’m sure. But you’d think that somewhere along the line, someone who’s actually used a bus station for the purpose of catching a bus might have pointed out the need for a queuing system and the utter carnage that’s going to erupt sooner or later if one wasn’t implemented.

Apparently not. Instead they compounded the issue by putting in remote controlled doors that don’t always work and result in a complete scramble through another door altogether when the bus finally shows up.

I might start walking.


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