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Stop Walking on the Escalator

Nick Douglas Mar 20, 2019. 24 comments

Escalator walkers and escalator standers are forever locked in struggle—they are like toilet paper over-the-roll installers and under-the-roll installers, or GIF pronouncers, or one-spacers and two-spacers , only brought head to head every day in the malls, airports, offices, train exits, and sundry moving staircases of the world. And the real-world evidence, it seems, is on the side of the standers. Walkers are a bottleneck, and they’re slowing each other—and the standers—down.

In a 2015 London tube experiment, London’s transport authority instructed commuters to stand still on both sides of the up escalator, instead of using the left side to walk. They found that with this switch, the escalator could take an extra passenger every two seconds. That’s 28 percent more passengers who could ride on the escalator in a given period of time, if everyone stopped trying to walk.

The reason is that when people walk up the escalator, they need more space before and behind them. Think of how close cars can get on a slow city street, compared to how much room they need on the highway. It turns out that the huge amount of space that escalator-walkers need cancels out all the time they gain by walking. They’re putting out more effort and getting a worse result.

Even worse, on a very long escalator, most regular riders know it’s not worth walking. So they politely pack onto the crowded right side of the escalator. As Quartz points out, everyone leaves half the escalator empty, just in case someone decides to walk up it. We treat those occasional walkers like kings. Why? Because we have been trained to worship the workaholics, the hard drivers, the people who can’t stand still for thirty seconds and catch their breath. We all waste half the space of an escalator, slowing ourselves down. This is humiliating. Let’s put an end to it.

If you’re ready to be a hero but an outcast—Batman—then next time you’re on a crowded escalator, move to the “walking” side, and stand still. Let everyone pile up behind you. Let them fill up both sides of the escalator, nice and tight. They won’t know it, but you’re actually speeding things up for them.

This rule only applies if there’s a lot of traffic on the escalator. If you’re the only one around, of course you’ll get up it faster if you walk. It’s only when people interact—when your walking forces you to leave space for each other—that it slows the system down.

In those cases, I say, stand anyway. That sounds stupid, right? Waste a few seconds for no reason? Yes, I used to be an escalator walker. I felt the same. Then one day I read this tweet.

A banal tweet, a clichéd comment, but I couldn’t shake it. Every time I started walking up an escalator, I was filled with dread, like a hypnotist had planted a trigger in me. Walking up escalators feels bad. It’s not like bounding up regular stairs. It’s disorienting, like badly synced VR, or playing with your phone too much in a car. It tires you out. It makes you brush against more strangers than necessary. It barely saves you any time. It’s virtue signaling.

So I stopped. It feels good. I check texts, I look around dumbly, I catch my breath, I stare at the back of the person in front of me. It’s not a moment of meditation or anything, but it’s one less moment of grinding as hard as possible against the spinning wheel of life.

And when I’m headed down, I take the stairs.

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