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Burning Man Exodus Plan
If you try to leave at the peak times (After about 11am until 5pm Sun-Mon, or after the burns) you will find a huge exodus line, and people spend up to 5 hours waiting in it. The smarter ones make a party out of it, but they burn gas, waste time and could be spending the time in camp with friends or even better, cleaning the Playa. Think of how much would be done if every hour spent waiting in exodus line was an hour of MOOP patrol -- we're talking tens of thousands of person-hours.
The chokepoint, it is reported, is 447 from Gerlach to Nixon. This has a capacity of 450 cars per hour. If the police could close the northbound lane, that could make a huge difference, but it would be very complex since one would need to temporarily open stretches of it to bring the few northbound folks up -- there is no other reasonable route.
I also have more recent proposals on my blog.
My first instinct was to make a system that would somehow fairly allocate appointment times for people to leave. That way you would sit in the city until your time, then go to a staging lot for people leaving in the same slot, and all leave in a group. Those without appointments would wait in line and use the spare slots left by people who didn't make their appointment, or wait for non-busy times.
The problem is there are two forces to keep in balance. You don't want it to be too easy to miss your appointment slot, or people will just grab an early one, and then people who who ask for a popular time like 1pm will be told the next available slot is 7pm. This suggests you want to make sure people really ask for the timeslot they can use, and if they are late, it costs them.
On the other hand, if you make it cost too much, people will rush to leave before they are fully cleaned up.
While exact times are appealing, things like gate-closures and accidents may also make them wrong.
The next simple system I have considered requires you to be fully packed and ready to leave in order to get an exit card.
When you show up, packed and ready for your card, even at a busy time, the guys at the central exodus desk on radio would have a computer do a random calculation. You would have a 2-3% chance of "winning" -- which means you exit immediately. The winner is waved directly to the current exit staging lot. This encourages people to use the system and ensures they are truly packed and ready, because if they win they are not going back to camp. If they bolt for camp, their licence plate is written down, and they have to wait for a non-busy time.
Lottery must be calculated centrally so exit volunteers can't cheat and let their friends out. Though it may be best just to find folks who can be trusted not to cheat as there are other ways to cheat.
447 North to Cedarville
Turns out people going to the Pacific Northwest don't use the highway south, and it's pointless to make them wait in the line. People with licence plates from the northwest, or car registration in far north California, can be given an immediate exit card if desired. Possibly an officer at the cutoff to 447 north would ask them to wave this card, which could have a special colour.
Only one exit card per vehicle
In order to make sure each vehicle gets only one exit card, gate crew would give every vehicle entering the playa a preliminary exit card with the last few digits of their licence plate written on it. This would be trade for an exit card when packed and ready. People would be told to keep that card in a place they won't lose it, like the glovebox. With the number written on it, it is of no value to steal.
Trade Clean-up for earlier exit
During the worst delays of the exodus, Burning Man could offer earlier exodus to those who do a shift of playa clean-up, above and beyond doing their own camp. Faced with a giant line or an exodus number not likely to leave for 5 hours, the people in a car could do a shorter shift of playa-cleanup and then be given an earlier exit. Admittedly, this may be so attractive that everybody wants to do it -- but in that case it doesn't work, you can't let everybody jump the line.
Q: Why don't people just leave at the light times, like early morning or late evening? That's when I leave, what's the fuss?
A: Like it or not, playa plans always go astray. Nobody wants to get into the giant line, certainly no repeat burner who has seen it. The paper guides all warn people about it. But it takes longer to clean camp than expected, even people who try to get ready the night before for an early departure. Some simply can't plan to leave late, they have rental vehicles to clean and return.
Q: Isn't this all super complex?
A: I don't think it's bad. No worse than boarding Southwest Airlines. The existing line system can still take place at the same time for those who want to get in line and leave as spots become available. People need not be forced to get a card.
Q: Does this not require more volunteers?
A: I think it needs less. Today volunteers are needed to stop people from cutting ahead in the lines. With a card system there is no cutting, other than trying to push your way into the staging lot and its nonstop path to the road. That needs fewer volunteers to enforce. This frees up people to hand out the exit cards. Obviously the more folks handing out cards the faster that goes. They would use radios to coordinate the number of cards goin gout.
Q: Would people forge cards?
A: The cards would be a sheet of paper with a special unique design for that year, and perhaps a foil stamp or die cut -- stops people from scanning and printing if they bring such gear to the playa. In addition, different coloured papers could be used to make it easy to identify the various exit groups. I figure the papers would cost about 25 cents -- a small price. They would have B&W exodus instructions on the back, too.