The dining hall traffic charts that appeared in Moulton Union two weeks ago offer many students a glimpse at a side of the Dining Service they might not normally see.
The eight charts, which Dining Services Business Manager Steve Cole called "eye-opening," are the beginning of a wider effort by the Dining Service to understand dining traffic patterns, and to inform curious—or aggravated—students accordingly.
Joe Berte '09 thinks that "something needs to be done" about the length of lines. "This year it's been especially worse," he said.
Every card swipe is recorded by the school's CS Gold campus ID card system. The Dining Service can then see, in real-time or years after the fact, how many students entered which dining hall in 15-minute intervals.
For instance, on Monday, February 2, from 1:00 to 1:15 p.m., 51 students got express lunches, 125 students swiped into lunch at Moulton, and 174 swiped into lunch at Thorne. During the next 15-minute block, 14 students got express lunches, 15 entered Moulton, and a mere two entered Thorne.
Such dramatic fluctuations are a fact of life for the dining staff. The kitchen staffs have the ability to see whether the bulk of students have already come, have yet to come, or are perhaps choosing the other dining hall.
Jessica Ziehler '11 proposed coordinating menus between dining halls to balance the load.
Nate Fritts '12 agreed, blaming much of the imbalance on situations when "there's one blatantly better menu at one dining hall than at the other."
However, Moulton Union Head Chef David Crooker explained that the Dining Service already holds weekly menu meetings to address concerns like Fritts'.
With the menus controlled, the sports and events schedules in mind, and the staff's awareness of consistent historical trends, the biggest wrench in traffic forecasting is the weather. Cold, rain, or snow can make students less willing to go to the farther dining hall, or can make everyone wait for the storm to abate, leading to a logjam when the skies clear.
Director of Dining & Bookstore Services Mary Lou Kennedy theorized that sunset, too, might have an impact on when students feel the urge to eat dinner.
Lunch, though, is the most harried meal, and the most subject to class schedules. Many students have expressed frustration with how crowded it can get; the Moulton traffic charts appeared next to a comment card that read, "Get more F***ING TABLES, a**holes," followed as if as an afterthought by a bold "PLEASE."
Indeed, Moulton's dark room was recently reconfigured to feature three rows of tables instead of the usual two.
Said Ziehler, "I hate the new arrangement. I guess it's better because it provides more seating, but the space in between the tables is not enough and it's really awkward."
Fritts noted, though, that "you get a little closer environment, and you probably get to see more people when you're eating."
Understanding the peaks and valleys could potentially let students choose a more comfortable time to eat, if their schedules allow it. Cole emphasized, however, that students' freedom of choice is of paramount importance; he does not wish to dictate when or where students should eat.
"I have class until 1 o'clock," said Berte, "and then around 1 o'clock I try to come to Moulton or Thorne and the lines are absolutely out-the-door full. People can't get in the door or out of the door, which is very annoying."
Evan Graff '11 enjoys more flexibility in his schedule. "Once you get a feel for when things are pretty busy you can just avoid those times and then you don't really have any trouble. Personally, it hasn't been too much of an issue."
Moulton Union can seat around 300 people. Thorne seats around 550, plus another 80 in private rooms. Combined, the two dining halls serve between 1,300 and 1,400 students nightly.
The staff served a total of about 680,000 meals last year. With more students on the 19-meal plan this year than last, the Dining Service is serving even more'10,859 more, in fact, when comparing the fall 2008 semester to fall 2007.
Cole explained that the key unknown factor in determining how crowded a location is at any given point is how long students stay. Kennedy suggested that, anecdotally, it seems like students are staying longer.
Jeremy Kraushar '09 proposed a radical solution to overcrowding.
"Add about 500 more students to the student population and have a third dining hall," he said. "More spread out, more options, and you wouldn't have any line problems... another Thorne Hall."