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A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of standing on the escalator

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2016

The London Underground recently conducted an experiment on one of the escalators leading out of the busy Holborn station. Instead of letting people walk up the left side of the escalator, they asked them to stand on both sides.

The theory, if counterintuitive, is also pretty compelling. Think about it. It’s all very well keeping one side of the escalator clear for people in a rush, but in stations with long, steep walkways, only a small proportion are likely to be willing to climb. In lots of places, with short escalators or minimal congestion, this doesn’t much matter. But a 2002 study of escalator capacity on the Underground found that on machines such as those at Holborn, with a vertical height of 24 metres, only 40% would even contemplate it. By encouraging their preference, TfL effectively halves the capacity of the escalator in question, and creates significantly more crowding below, slowing everyone down. When you allow for the typical demands for a halo of personal space that persist in even the most disinhibited of commuters — a phenomenon described by crowd control guru Dr John J Fruin as “the human ellipse”, which means that they are largely unwilling to stand with someone directly adjacent to them or on the first step in front or behind — the theoretical capacity of the escalator halves again. Surely it was worth trying to haul back a bit of that wasted space.

Leaving aside “the human ellipse” for now,1 how did the theory work in the real life trial? The stand-only escalator moved more than 25% more people than usual:

But the preliminary evidence is clear: however much some people were annoyed, Lau’s hunch was right. It worked. Through their own observations and the data they gathered, Harrison and her team found strong evidence to back their case. An escalator that carried 12,745 customers between 8.30 and 9.30am in a normal week, for example, carried 16,220 when it was designated standing only. That didn’t match Stoneman’s theoretical numbers: it exceeded them.

But not everyone liked being asked to stand for the common good:

“This is a charter for the lame and lazy!” said one. “I know how to use a bloody escalator!” said another. The pilot was “terrible”, “loopy,” “crap”, “ridiculous”, and a “very bad idea”; in a one-hour session, 18 people called it “stupid”. A customer who was asked to stand still replied by giving the member of staff in question the finger. One man, determined to stride to the top come what may, pushed a child to one side. “Can’t you let us walk if we want to?” asked another. “This isn’t Russia!”

There’s a lesson in income inequality here somewhere…2

Update: The NY Times wades into the not walking on escalators debate: Why You Shouldn’t Walk on Escalators. Standing on the escalator, meet American self-interest.

It would be hard to persuade people that “everybody wins” if they all merely stood on the escalator, Curtis W. Reisinger, a psychologist at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y., said.

“Overall I am not too optimistic that people’s sense of altruism can override their sense of urgency and immediacy in a major metro area where the demands for speed and expediency are high,” he wrote in an email.

Sam Schwartz, New York City’s former traffic commissioner and a fellow in transportation at Hunter College, said people’s competitive nature tends to trump logic and science.

“In the U.S., self-interest dominates our behavior on the road, on escalators and anywhere there is a capacity problem,” he wrote in an email. “I don’t believe Americans, any longer (if they ever did), have a rational button.”

There’s nothing more American than a few people gaining a few extra seconds at the expense of many having to wait a lot longer. See also Tom Junod’s piece from Esquire, The Water-Park Scandal and Two Americas in the Raw: Are We a Nation of Line-Cutters, or Are We the Line?

  1. What a phrase! Check out Fruin’s chapter on Designing for Pedestrians for more.

  2. Ok, explicitly: the people standing are poor, the people walking are rich, and speed is income. When the walkers redistribute some of their speed to the whole group, on average everyone gets to where they’re going faster. But the walkers are unwilling to give up walking because they believe their own individual speed will prevail. “This isn’t Russia!” indeed.

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