There is a generally accepted etiquette to traveling by escalator: if you want to stand, move to one side (usually the right); if you prefer to walk, do so on the other (usually left). Those who choose to walk are perceived to do so because they are in a hurry or are fitness fanatics. As a recent New York Times article puts it, “You stick to the left and walk…, figuring you can save precious seconds and get a bit of exercise.” But a recent study suggests that all escalator users actually move faster when everybody stands.
1.305 billion passengers use the London Underground train system every year. 1.305 billion people going up and down stairs and escalators between subterranean train platforms and city streets. And London’s population is rising faster than any other city’s in Europe. It was home to 8.6 million people in 2016 and is expected to accommodate 10 million by 2030. The London Infrastructure Plan predicts demand for the London Underground—the oldest such system in the world—will rise by 60% by 2050.
In order to accommodate as many passengers as efficiently as possible, Transport for London enlisted the aid of Capgemini Consulting to streamline its escalator traffic. The consulting firm ran an experiment at Holborn Station, one of the busiest stations in the city, with more than 56 million passengers each year. Holborn is also one of the Underground’s deepest stations, with escalators 23.4 meters (77 feet) tall. Transport for London knew that in stations with escalators higher than 18.5 meters (61 feet), most people on the up escalators opt to stand, leaving the left half of the escalators unused. At Holborn, only 40% of passengers said they would be willing to walk up the escalators.
According to Capgemini’s initial model, walking up the Holborn escalators took 26 seconds, compared to 40 seconds for standing. Factoring in time spent waiting in line to board the escalators, walkers took 46 seconds to move from the platform to the top of the escalators, compared to 138 seconds for standers. The researchers also noted that fewer people could fit on the walking side of the escalator at any one time (about 70% of the number on the standing side) because walkers occupied more space than did standers.
But for three weeks at Holborn Station, transport staff encouraged passengers to stand on both sides of the up escalators. Staff members at the bottom asked passengers to stand on both sides. Plain-clothes plants, typically hefty males, stood on the left sides of the escalators to block walkers’ paths. Station employees asked couples to hold hands across the escalators to further thwart climbers’ plans.
The result? The average time to move from the platform to the top of the escalators when everyone stood on both sides was 59 seconds, 13 seconds slower for those who normally walked, but 79 seconds faster for standers. The average length of escalator boarding lines decreased from 73 people to 24 people. Universal standing proved a more efficient method to get as many people to the top of the escalators.
And efficiency and altruism became the major buzzwords in the aftermath of the experiment. “Changing how commuters behave is an ever more important part of a barrage of efforts to increase the capacity of the Tube,” read a summary of the study in the British newspaper The Guardian. “[Transport for London] has to extract every last ounce of capacity from its underground network.”
“If the understanding is, we’re doing this for the greater good, people will comply,” said Transport for London’s Paul Stoneman about the standing initiative. The New York Times echoed Stoneman, writing that experts agree walkers are “seizing an advantage at the expense and safety of other commuters.”
Others were less hopeful about the public’s ability to see the collective benefit of standing. “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,” wrote Curtis W. Reisinger, a psychologist at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New York. And Sam Schwartz, New York City’s former traffic commissioner and a fellow in transportation at Hunter College, wrote, “In the U.S., self-interest dominates our behavior on the road, on escalators and anywhere there is a capacity problem.”
The most efficient escalator solution would be for everyone to walk.
So the argument goes that it is more efficient for all escalator riders if everyone stands; therefore, everyone should agree to stand to promote the greatest good for all. Yet the entire project ignores the fact that the most efficient escalator solution would be for everyone to walk. And researchers at Holborn Station failed to test this condition by implementing a walking-only escalator. Perhaps it was a matter of majority rules, with 60% of Holborn passengers refusing to consider the idea of walking. Yet I would hazard to guess most of those escalator riders are not physically incapable of walking. No one in a wheelchair is rolling up to the base of an escalator. Most people standing on escalators likely prefer not to exert the effort to walk.
The debate about escalator behavior highlights a continuing social trend toward efficiency and comfort. Most people want things in life to be easy, fast and comfortable. Even walkers’ complaints echo this desire. “A lot of people walk. It’s about time, isn’t it?” said Andrew Hossack. “I always walk. I always get my steps in!” said Beth Forrester. Human bodies are designed for movement. We shouldn’t be walking to get to our destinations as fast as possible. We shouldn’t be walking to meet some arbitrary steps goal. Rather, we should walk because we are capable of movement and that is exactly what our bodies are built to do.
So maybe standing on escalators provides the most efficient traffic flow while still aligning with most people’s preferred behavior. But let’s be honest about why most people prefer to stand and examine this blind desire for global efficiency. And for those who prefer to walk, take the stairs if you can, though these are often dominated by customers walking down to the platform. If you have to stand, chalk it up to a consequence of living in a society and using public transportation. Like eating dinner on the subway, there are some behaviors that transport agencies discourage in order to provide a more comfortable experience for everyone else.