John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Is this Spanish walkalator a boon for the old and infirm, or a crutch for the lazy?
Moving walkways are typically found in airports and shopping malls, places where tiredness and sloth mix with the urgent need to get somewhere. But one city in Spain has broken out of the box with a snazzy mechanical walkway running right through the middle of town.
This is architect Roberto Ercilla's "Mechanical Ramps" in Vitoria-Gasteiz, a city of about 236,000 souls situated near the northeast coastline of Spain (for the geo-bufffs out there: 42°50'55'' N, 2°40'20'' W). The local council installed the giant treadmill in 2007 at a cost of about €3.7 million. The autowalk is split into seven segments that run more or less in a straight line up and down charmingly European but heel-bustingly steep cobblestone roads.
Ercilla has equipped the walkalator with a few interesting features in the ages-old ballet of form vs. function. It's made from a tough kind of glass, obviously, so folks riding inside get the full effect of Vitoria's architecture and don't feel like they're traveling in a shoebox. Gaps in the glass panes allow for ventilation, while gaps between the walkway segments let people get valuable "outdoors time" between their assisted lifts.
The metal frame of the people mover is composed of hundreds of porticoes that are out of alignment with each other, creating a structure like a twisting snake skeleton. The effect of riding through this out-of-whack environment might remind certain people of Vertigo, but it's definitely not boring. Ercilla designed it this way to create a sense of moment, as he explains on his website:
The basic stainless steel and glass portico acts similarly to the shots of a film, by means of rotary movements around a virtual axis in sequences of one metre distances. The sensation of rotational movement that the user perceives uses the movement of the ramp itself to create a connected sequence that holds one's interest all the way up, creating different views in different places along the way. The permanent exterior vision through the glass contributes to this sensation produced by the continuous turning of the porticoes.
Vitoria's travelator is probably cherished by the older residents of the town, whose hip and knee joints grind like unoiled bearings when ascending these troublesome hills. And the benefit for people with physical disabilities is clear. As for everyone else, though, isn't using this thing a bit of a cop-out? I imagine calf muscles turning to Jell-O after years of coasting effortlessly up and down the city's rugged landscape.
Sure, pedestrians might choose to burn some energy by walking inside the movator. But then again, they may not. A 2009 study in the journal Chaos suggested that people who use moving walkways in airports tend to slow down, holding onto their precious calories, instead of striding forth briskly to get to the gate. People are innately lazy.
There's also the argument that having a cumbersome escalator system jammed into historic downtown ruins the Old World aesthetics of Vitoria. Despite its unorthodox design, it still looks somewhat like somebody ripped it out of an airport. But maybe that's just because we're not used to seeing moving sidewalks in the city. As more and more of these systems pop up in metropolises throughout the world, and as pounding the pavement becomes a nuisance, Vitoria's mechanical ramps might be seen as the breakthrough that changed the nature of foot traffic.
Top image courtesy of Roberto Ercilla Arquitectura.