The Weird Way That Standing (Not Walking) On Escalators Helps Move People More Quickly

The Weird Way That Standing (Not Walking) on Escalators Helps Move People More Quickly

It's the golden rule of crowded escalators: Stand on one side, walk on the other. But passengers taking the escalator in one of London's busiest tube stations were recently confronted with a weird rule: Everyone must stand. Officials claim it will make stations run more efficiently. But how? The head-smacking logic was explained in detail by The Guardian this weekend. I'll admit, it still doesn't totally make sense to me, but there's the rationale.

Transport for London is seeing record-high numbers of passengers, which leads to some stations (namely the older, more antiquated ones) becoming overwhelmed with bodies during rush hour. Escalators naturally create bottlenecks when all those people are squeezed into narrower paths, so you'd think that it would improve congestion for the faster-moving people to go ahead and slip past the slower-moving people.

But no no no! It actually all comes down to two factors: How many stairs passengers need to climb (or descend), and how many passengers end up attempting it. If too many people try to walk up long escalators, it ends up making congestion worse. Take London's Holborn station and its 23m escalator:

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.

Additional data modelling proved correct: If everyone is moving the same speed (walking to the escalator, then not walking on the escalator), 31 more people would be able to get onto the escalator each minute.

Convinced? Even if it might work, theoretically, the real challenge is getting frantic passengers to agree with you. Japan has instituted a similar policy called "Don't Walk, Stand Where You Like". The London experiment was, in fact, inspired by Hong Kong, where the message to passengers was that standing was best for safety reasons. The system claimed to see a decrease in accidents (apparently a bunch of people get seriously hurt every year by other fast-moving people in train stations?). But what kind of message would work in London? TfL still isn't sure.

During a three-week trial, London had station workers shouting out at Holborn passengers to stand, but they have bigger plans if the experiment will become permanent:

The handrail and tread of the escalator will be a different colour, and firmly planted pairs of feet will decorate the left of the steps. In lieu of actual people, a hologram customer service operative will remind people to stand on both sides.

Although I might buy the safety argument, I don't think this would ever ever ever ever happen in some other countries. It seriously sounds crazy to have someone standing there to "make" people stand, hologram or human. I mean, THEY CAN'T STOP YOU FROM WALKING, right?

[The Guardian]

Photo by Ged Carroll

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    If you're really, really bored, look up 'traffic theory'.

    I was in Japan back in August and it amazed me to see escalators completely packed on the left (or in Osaka, on the right), with a completely clear run to the top on the other side.

    So I can definately see the logic in why the stand on both sides would work.

    If you're forced to stand some would take the stairs. I know I would.

    And what do the numbers come out as if everyone walks steadily up the escalator (not rushing just walking at a steady pace)? Surely they'd push more people through at that point?

      I'd say not. If people are walking they need more space. So instead of having someone on every step, if people are moving, they would need an empty step to step onto. This effectively halves the capacity.

        Where your logic, and that of the proponents of not walking, fails is in the simple fact that at least as many people will get onto the escaltors on the walking side as on the standing side. You never see people waiting longer on one side or the other.

        Even if walking does decrease overall capacity, which I doubt, it still makes for faster individual journeys, which is the only thing those individuals walking would care about.

        Interesting point. I hadn't considered that.

    I once had to carry a pram down one of those massive steep escalators in the london tube (it wasn't working) - possibly one of most unnerving and disorienting experiences in my life.

      Did you take the baby out first?

    I couldn't understand how it could possibly be faster until I read the original Guardian article which has a couple of diagrams that make it crystal clear.

    And didn't see it explicitly mentioned, but I think this is only beneficial for escalators going up.

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