An Open Letter to GPE

Sep 2022

In Cory Doctorow’s book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the main character (Jules) has this to say about himself:

[my compulsion] was Beating The Crowd, finding the path of least resistance, filling the gaps, guessing the short queue, dodging the traffic, changing lanes with a whisper to spare – moving with precision and grace and, above all, expedience. I spied a queue … that was slightly longer than the others, but I joined it and ticced nervously as I watched my progress relative to the other spots I could’ve chosen. I was borne out, a positive omen for a wait-free World, and I was sauntering down Main Street, USA long before my ferrymates.

Reading this passage, I realized that I was not alone in my weird obsession. I hate lines, the waiting in of, and like Jules I will obsessively attempt to pick the shortest queue to optimize my wait time.

As you can imagine, Burning Man, with it’s notorious entry and exodus lines, is a kind of special torture for me. I struggle constantly to remain patient and silence my overeager mind as it attempts to compute my rate of progress relative to my line-mates and my destination. I become short and distracted with my car mates, and annoyed at the perceived inefficiencies in the system.

In order to channel my frustration into a productive direction, back in 2012 I joined the Gate, Perimeter, and Exodus (GPE) department. In the decade since, I’ve worked just about every position in the department – apex, airport, lanes, perimeter, and this year I did a stint in the Traffic Operations Center (TOC). I worked enough shifts in 2019 for a staff-priced ticket, and enough this year for a staff credential for my next burn.

To some extent, joining the department (as well as simply becoming a decade older and a little bit more patient) has helped me deal entry/exit crawl. When the line totally stops moving at 6 pm, I know that there’s a shift change, and we’ll get moving soon, and I can reassure people around me about this. What I hoped for, however, was a sense that there’s some giant master plan that’s helping to move me out of a 10-hour traffic jam as quickly as possible. This sense continues to elude me, and is the reason I’m writing this open letter.

I do not mean to throw shade on any people in the department. I understand first-hand how difficult these shifts are, standing out in a white-out in 100+ degree heat, breathing dust and exhaust, dealing with cranky and cantankerous burners while trying not to get crushed by traffic. I also understand the difficulty that the leaders of the department have, doing this thankless job in exchange for meal pogs and t-shirts, trying to take care of their volunteers while balancing the demands of the org, various state agencies, and the forces of pure chaos. But I cannot help but get the sense that something is not working quite right. I am 200% open to the possibility that, actually, everything is going as well as possible, and it’s just that my spidey sense is off here. I know that when other department members express concerns on the gate list, they sometimes get (vehemently) dismissed as “armchair quarterbacks” who, because they weren’t working that specific shift or that specific role, have no right to an opinion. But in this case, I think it’s a communication problem. If even long-time department volunteers (including this one) are frustrated and confused by the operation of the department, what of the participants? These are the people who, after being stuck in a 10-hour traffic jam for inscrutable reasons, unload their anger on the front-line Exodus volunteers. Everyone here deserves better – and even if this is just a communication problem, that’s still a real problem that, I believe, demands attention.

Entry

My entry into Burning Man was more than 3 hours long – on Wednesday pre-event! As others have noted on the gate list, the second and third lines from the left on the way in merged right before apex, meaning those two lines moved half as fast as the other lines. I attempted to reassure my car mate for almost an hour that this must be an illusion, and that no line moves faster through Apex than any other line, but my poor choice of lanes cost me a lot of extra wait time, and anxiety that we would miss our camp’s placers for the night and would have to sleep in our truck instead of setting up camp. The department doesn’t want participants changing lanes, because it messes up the cone placement. The best way to prevent lane-jumping is to make sure the lanes are actually fair!

Next, I had to pick up my staff credential from the box office. On the way out of the Will-Call lot, we again had a massive line stretching back into the lot. Two volunteers at the front were letting cars out of Will-Call, only into the two rightmost lanes, which Apex was also using. This resulted in an additional 30 to 45 minutes of wait out of the lot. It was incredibly frustrating to have waited at the Apex line already, only to have cars that arrived hours after us hit the lanes ahead of us. Apex can hold traffic and empty out the Will-Call line. Why not do this?

TOC

I worked a TOC shift on Sunday of Temple Burn. For 6 hours, I had control of this twitter account – the first time I’ve ever posted anything on Twitter! This was my chance to understand exodus, and to help tens of thousands of people to leave the Burn in the easiest way possible.

I do not believe that, through any of my tweets, I helped anyone make better decisions. Some of my tweets were of the inane variety, like “don’t break down in the lanes”. I had a campmate whose car broke down on the way in, and he was just going to leave when it was time to leave – the tweets had no bearing on his decision.

The most useful tweets could have been wait time estimates, and I believe that some of those were purely made up. I tweeted that the wait was 6 hours, and tweeted again that the wait was 1 hour just 20 minutes later! The amount of information coming to the TOC from folks on the ground is miniscule – reporting wait times is not a huge priority, even though this is the one number everyone in the city wants to know. We communicated this number to BMIR maybe twice during my six-hour shift, and once it was only because we had totally stopped all traffic and asked them to report it. I didn’t have a radio in my truck, but campmates reported that BMIR was more interested in their programming than in keeping folks informed about exodus – just was well, since I don’t believe they have any special information. At least on Sunday afternoon, nobody seemed to have any accurate information about the wait time in Exodus.

My TOC shift lead was warm, personable, efficient on the radio, and a great person. However, I was sometimes shocked at their claims and decisions. At the beginning of my shift, someone radioed into TOC, asking, “BMIR is reporting a 3.5 hour wait time, do you know where they got that number”? My shift lead said, “Yeah, that makes sense, because gate road is 4 miles long and the speed limit is 5 miles an hour.” After some back-and-forth, the person on the radio signed off, unconvinced by this obviously faulty math, but clearly unwilling to continue taking up airtime. My shift lead then told me to tweet that number!

Exodus

I left on Sunday night, shortly after my TOC shift ended. Because I sent this tweet about using all the lanes, I was able to satisfy my compulsion and skip a ton of traffic by using the empty lanes. The pulses themselves, however, drove me nuts. Specifically, in all my pulses, I observed the final portion of gate road completely draining of all cars – nobody else merging onto the highway. Exodus would then continue to hold traffic for anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, for no reason I could discern. I sort of assumed this was because traffic was getting stuck on 447, but my brothers in black running Exodus that night assured me this was not happening.

It was sad to watch participants get into their vehicles and start them as they watched the road drain, then shut them down again 5 minutes later when the line showed no signs of movement. Keeping these people informed would help everyone.

Wrap-Up

My exodus took 9 hours (though it would’ve been 7 if my janky borrowed truck hadn’t refused to start at the beginning of my last pulse!) To everyone who helped out, including volunteers who brought me a jump box – THANK YOU!) I know people who spent 11 hours in the full heat of Monday afternoon. These anecdotes are, sadly, the best data we have! Where are the charts of wait time by departure time over the years of exodus, the charts that would help level out traffic flows out of the city? If your answer is “leave Tuesday morning”, then you clearly don’t understand the reality of participants who have to get back to their lives and jobs, but first must drive a theme camp home, unload it, and de-dust it.

I can anticipate the reaction to this essay among the GPE crew. At worst, I’ll be dismissed as ignorant, not someone who trully understands the process and the constraints. Guity! To these people, I would say that, if a 10-year department veteran is confused and frustrated by gate operations, then there’s a real problem here. At best, some GPE folks will tell me that, if I think I can do better, I should sign up – as though there’s a slot in the shift system for “Run everything as you see fit”.

My goal is not to blindly criticize, but to contribute constructively. Ultimately, I would love to just relax and enjoy the Gate process. I think a little bit of information would help me and the other participants to do just that.