The Phantom Tollbooth


Human behavior is fascinating - fascinatingly stupid, that is.

We have a toll to get on the island.  They call it a "parking fee" as the Park Authority has no authority to charge tolls  on State roads.  It used to be $5 and the toll booth located just over the last bridge onto the island.   An employee would man the booth and collect the $5 - holding a wad of cash in his hand.  It was only robbed once, that I know of, but the setup was ripe for fraud.  Employees could pocket the cash, or let their friends on the island for free.

Compounding this, since the toll booth was at the bottom of the last bridge, many folks would crest this bridge doing 50 (in a 35 zone) and plow into the line of cars waiting to pay the toll.  So a new de-luxe toll booth was built - entirely automated - about two miles before the last bridge.  Immediately, toll income increased substantially, lending credence to the idea that perhaps some employee theft was going on.

The problem was - and is - that no one could figure out how to use the automated toll booth.   As I wrote about before, the island Authority keeps messing with the machines - adding signs, and then audio cues and whatnot, trying to "explain" the machine to users - often making things more confusing in the process.   There are now three lanes for people to use, but folks continually line up in the left lane for some reason, even though all three lanes are open.  They have put up signs saying things like "all three lanes open, cash or credit card!" and even big light-up signs saying "open" above each portal.

If you are a psychology major working on a Masters thesis, I suggest you come down here and check it out - it is an interesting example of human behavior gone awry.  You can lay on the beach all day and work on your thesis - or suntan.  You could set up cameras to monitor the madness at the toll booth and review and count the car behaviors at the end of the day.   Hey, maybe the island authority would even pay you a stipend to figure out how to make these toll booths work!  It's worth a shot.

Today is a typical example.  We are driving down the causeway, and the speed limit is 55 mph.  A mile behind us is another car.  The speed limit drops to 45 mph about a mile from the toll booth - the car behind us gets closer.  A half-mile from the toll booth, the speed limit is 35 - the car is now tailgating us.  A quarter-mile from the toll booth, the speed limit drops to 25 mph - the car is now flashing its lights and honking its horn.  Speed up goddammit! they seem to be saying, I'm in a hurry to vacation!

We get to the booth and there is a line of four cars in the left lane.  The other two lanes are open.  This is very typical.  All three lanes are identical in functionality.   The angry tailgater who was "in a hurry" gets in line behind the four cars!  We take one of the other lanes, and our RFID pass opens the gate automatically.   Mr. Speedy, meanwhile, is looking at a 15-minute wait, while two adjacent gates sit unused!

What is going on here?  Someone is so angry and "in a hurry" but when they get to the toll gate, they get in the longest line possible instead of taking an empty lane and being first in line.  They are in such a hurry to "get there" (where?  On vacation?) that they don't bother to look at the signs or the lane markers or anything.  They just assume that since there is a line of four cars in one lane, that is the place to go.

In the rear-view mirror, I see the angry man finally figuring it out - he backs up (not safe) and swerves into one of the empty lanes.   He finally figured it out, but only after he stopped and saw us whiz through the adjacent lane.

What makes people do this?  Normative cues - an excellent example!   When people are in a situation where they don't know what is going on, they follow the lead of other people, as they figure the "other guy" must know what he is doing, and if three or four people are doing it, well, then it must be the right thing to do.   So going to the empty lane that says "OPEN" in foot-high letters above it must be the wrong move, because no one is in that lane.

But the lane with four cars in it - with the elderly man dropping money on the pavement at the automated machine and getting out of his car - is the "right" answer because others are waiting in line, and surely they must know - even though they are as clueless as the tailgating driver was.

It is human nature, I guess - people live in fear, and fear is never an emotion to be trusted.  They fear stupid things, too - tiny delays in their lives, minor inconveniences.   I mentioned before how people do U-turns on the one and only road on our island (it makes a loop) convinced they will end up in Jacksonville or Savanna if they don't turn around - or worse yet, end up as one of those cars full of skeletons left behind by tourists who didn't do the right thing and turn around before it was too late!

People are morons - and they miss out on so much in life because they follow the herd and live in fear.  At Versailles, we went to see the "Hall of Mirrors".  It isn't much of a big deal today - back then, having a mirror was like having a flat-screen television.  Having a hall of them was like having a flat-screen television and a jet-ski.  Yes, our ancestors were white trash.   The line to get in was huge and there was a three hour wait - to see mirrors.

We were with some friends and I said, "follow me" because I had been there before and went through the same rigmarole.   You can go into the beautiful gardens behind the palace and wander around the grounds (I think the admission to that was free, also).  There were small kiosks selling French wine and others selling charcuterie platters - cheese and deli meats.   That and a baguette, and we were set - we rented a large rowboat and the four of us went out on the lake and had a nice lunch.  Beats standing in line in the hot sun to see mirrors.

A similar thing happened at Napoleon's tomb.  If you've seen one tomb, you've seen them all, and again the line was hours long.   It was at Les Invalides which I guess was a hospital at one time, but was now a military museum with a collection of cannons.  We walked around the grounds (again, not going to wait in line for two hours in the hot sun to see a box) and saw as sign for "the model room" which was on the top floor under the mansard roof.  It was almost totally dark in there, but the place was full of huge, detailed models of every city in France.   Back in the day, this was considered a military secret - these models were used to plan invasions or defense of cities.  They were so detailed as to even have addresses on the mailboxes of the houses.  The one of Mont St. Michele was even a cutaway, so you could see inside.

Very interesting, very cool (literally, it was air-conditioned) and beats waiting in line for two hours to see a box with some bones in it.

But people are afraid.  The guide book says you should see this tomb!  So you go and wait in line and then bitch about how long you waited to the folks back home and check "Napoleon's Tomb" off your bucket list.

Or, you could take a risk of not seeing a box or a bunch of mirrors in an overheated room with a bunch of sweaty tourists and strike out on your own.   It might be a total bust, or you might find something wonderful.   And the ratio of busts-to-wonderful is about 5 to 1, of course.   I dragged Mark to the French Patent Office once, and while it was not unlike Crystal City, they did have Louis XIV's humongous globe on display - big enough to walk into!  Also had a nice French meal in an uncrowded restaurant.   It was also educational, in that it made me realize that all of Paris is not like the touristy parts, but a lot like New Jersey.

And so on and so forth.  Sometimes going off the beaten path is its own reward, even if you see nothing of consequence, only because you see nothing of consequence - including no other tourists or people.  On our second trip to Japan, I wanted to go to rural, redneck Japan, and see how people lived there.  Yes, Toyko is nice and Kyoto (Tokyo spelled backwards, in Japanese) is beautiful, as is Nara.  And Osaka was certainly an interesting city  But once we got out into the county - up in the mountains, where we were the only foreigners around, it was fascinating.   Japan, like the UK, has a lot of rural areas, even though both are the most heavily populated islands in the world.  London is nice, of course, but I would prefer a narrowboating holiday.

Sometimes you have to think outside of the box and not be afraid - not be afraid of seeing nothing of interest, but perhaps only to find out where the road goes.  Not every day has to be a Disney vacation.

But I guess that is why Disney is so successful.   You go there and are guaranteed a good time, and always something interesting to see.  Simply follow the line of people ahead of you - because they know where they are going as much as you do.  You are in no risk of being bored or the kids getting fidgety!

But sometimes - sometimes - the road less traveled is more interesting than the well-worn path.

And sometimes - most times, I think - people stand in lines for no reason whatsoever!