Future Tense

Don’t Walk on Escalators. It’s Faster if Everyone Stands.

Performers wearing lion dance costumes (hilariously) ride an escalator to the Philippine stock exchange for Lunar New Year celebrations, Feb. 18, 2015.

Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images

People who walk on escalators might say that they do it because they’re “in a hurry,” but we indolent standers know that they only do it to make us feel bad. In an unexpected—and counterintuitive—twist of fate, though, it turns out that the walkers are actually the true societal drain. Research shows that escalators are utilized more efficiently when everyone just packs on and stands, instead of allowing people to choose to walk.

Usually people naturally create two paths on escalators. One (to the right in the United States) is for standing, and the other is for walking. The Guardian reports, though, that during a three-week trial at the Holborn Tube Station (a transfer station used by 56 million people per year) in November, staffers from the municipal group Transport for London attempted to disrupt this norm. Employees used megaphones to ask people not to walk on the escalators. They sent unmoving staffers up and down the escalators to block walking traffic. They even asked couples to stand next to each other and hold hands to discourage the usual walking lane.

Research from the University of Greenwich in 2011 indicated that on average about 75 percent of people will stand on escalators while the other 25 percent walk. Right away you can see how reserving half of an escalator’s real estate for only one-quarter of the people who use it might not make sense. And people tend to create more following distance on the walking side of the escalator versus the standing side. Transport for London’s simulations preliminarily showed that using a whole Holborn Station escalator for standing would allow 31.25 more people per minute to board the escalator (112.5 people on the escalator per minute versus 81.25 people per minute with a walking lane).

In fact the three-week experiment in 2015 had even better results than the Transport for London researchers predicted based on the Greenwich research. For example, one escalator that normally transported 12,745 people between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. on a typical week was able to move 16,220 because of standing rules. But the Guardian reports that commuters pushed back, calling the trial “stupid” or yelling, “This isn’t Russia!”

The approach asks people to do something they are often bad at: delaying instant gratification in the interest of a greater good. A lot of the benefit of universal standing has to do with reducing the bottleneck at the entrance to escalators. The more people can get on per minute, the less time they have to wait to get on in the first place. For walkers this may not intuitively feel like a worthwhile trade-off, though. And creating specific sides for walking/standing is a very ingrained behavior.

Michael Kinsey, a fire engineer who co-authored the 2011 study and has been working on escalator safety at the British consulting firm Arup, told Slate that attempting to change rider behavior for short escalators may not be worth it. “However, for longer escalators, more people typically prefer to ride due to increase in energy expenditure/physical ability of walking,” he said, “Which means less people are using the walker lane. … So for longer escalators, if the main aim is to increase escalator capacity, then asking people to ride on both sides will achieve this.”

Some cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong have considered initiatives for years to reduce escalator walking. But these discussions have mainly been motivated by safety concerns. Peter Kauffmann, a transportation engineer at Gorove/Slade Associates, said he’s not surprised that Transport for London had a lot of resistance to its three-week trial. “Implementing any kind of pedestrian rule is difficult, and here you have the situation where the rule has to be variable, since when things are uncongested riders are going to want to walk to save time (and you’ll want to accommodate them for customer satisfaction).”

He added, though, that the Transport for London data is gratifying for researchers like him who had previously only been able to study escalator ridership optimization with computer simulations (as in a paper Kauffmann co-authored in 2014 titled “Modeling the Practical Capacity of Escalators”). “It’s exciting to see somebody actually testing this,” he said.

It’s hard to change people’s habits, but if it will really get them to work more quickly, they might warm up to the idea of standing patiently on an escalator. Then again, people can get pretty emotional about escalators. “People in a hurry generally do not want to stand still as there is feeling that constantly moving means they are making progress,” Kinsey said.

“We all want to get on the train, in order to reach our destinations; and yet we can’t get to the train,” Hamilton Nolan wrote on Gawker in 2013. “Why can’t we get there? It’s so close. Why not just make our way to the platform in a hasty but orderly fashion and get on the train? Because this motherfucker up here wants to stand still on the escalator.” The stakes are high.