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What Commuters Get Wrong About Escalator Etiquette

Walking on the left side may not save time after all.

Evan Vucci / AP Images

Few things are more irksome to a frequent subway rider than those passengers who violate the unspoken rules of the metro. In addition to the person who tries to shove into a car as the doors are closing, or who manspreads across multiple seats, perhaps the most hated prototype is the traveler who clogs up the escalator by standing on the left side. Among Washingtonians, these people are referred to as “escalumps,” and they are often a serious source of complaint for hurried commuters eager to make it to work on time.

At first glance, the need to prohibit escalumps seems intuitive. “People who stand to the left instead of standing to the right are like speed bumps,” a D.C. metro spokeswoman said back in 2007, “and they slow down the pedestrian flow through the stations.” But recent evidence has found fault with this popular logic—instead finding that having everyone stand on an escalator can actually relieve subway station congestion.

Last year, Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway successfully reduced escalator accidents by campaigning for passengers to stand on both sides. Inspired by that effort, Transport for London (TfL) Engineering Manager Paul Stoneman ran some calculations using measurements for the Holborn station in London. According to his results, forcing an entire escalator to stand could potentially accommodate an additional 31 passengers per minute, or 28 percent more than if the right lane were allowed to bypass the left.

How can that be? The explanation, it turns out, is rather simple: Once an escalator reaches a certain height, passengers are deterred from walking up the left side. This creates crowding at the foot of the escalators as passengers wait to access the standing lane on the right. Enforcing a standing-only rule ensures that passengers are moving up the escalators consistently, creating fewer pile-ups. It also allows for more people to fit on an escalator at a given time.

Herein lies an an important caveat. These calculations only apply to escalators of a certain height. According to a theoretical study of the London Underground from 2002, escalators higher than 18.5 meters (or 60.7 feet) should see an improved capacity from encouraging passengers to stand on both sides. At 24 meters (or 78.7 feet), the TfL Holborn station escalators well exceed the necessary height threshold.

The challenge for TfL was to put this theory to the test. To get Londoners to comply with a three-week trial, TfL had a team of staff members stand at the foot of the station’s “up” escalators and ask travelers to remain standing on either side. The subway service also planted certain staff members on the escalators themselves and asked couples to hold hands across the right and left lanes to curtail the flow of foot traffic.

The final results not only confirmed their expectations but revealed an even more pronounced effect than TfL had originally anticipated. Over the course of three weeks, standing-only escalators accommodated 16,220 passengers between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. Compared with the same time period on a normal week—when the escalators were not regulated—the trial yielded almost 3,500 more passengers per hour, an increase of nearly 30 percent.

Prior to the trial period, the Holborn station often relied on a “station control” system, in which they temporarily limited the number of passengers who could enter the station to prevent overcrowding. Throughout the trial, however, enforcing station control was only necessary one time during the first week.

Of course, the real difficulty lies in getting passengers to abide by the standing-only rule. During the first week of the trial, many Londoners were visibly confused or frustrated by having to stand. But after the fist week, their behavior seemed to change, and they became more understanding—if not accepting—of the idea. By the third week, customers were even greeting the TfL staff members and helping to enforce the new rule.

This has led TfL to believe that another trial, concentrated on just one escalator, would be a useful next step toward altering London’s escalator etiquette. “One thing that came through very clearly in feedback is that some of our customers want to be able to walk up escalators,” explains London Underground’s Director of Customer Strategy Mark Evers, via a TfL press officer, “so even if we bring in this arrangement at some stations, we’d expect to keep at least one escalator for a mix of standing and walking customers.”

Such a future trial would test whether customers could be directed to remain standing without the encouragement of nearby staff. Instead, a hologram staff member would instruct passengers not to walk on either side. TfL is also considering painting the handrails of the escalator, and marking the left side with footprints to indicate that passengers should stand in place.

Whatever the results of this hypothetical trial, it will take an exhausting amount of effort to reverse people’s ingrained commuting habits. But while convincing impatient transit riders not to push past one another won’t be easy, they might accept a little civility in exchange for a shorter commute.

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