We'd All Move a Lot Faster if Nobody Walked on the Escalator

If you've ever lived in a large city, you know the escalator rule like gospel: stand on the right, walk on the left (for most of us — we see you, Australia). Violate that rule, and you'll hear some choice words from a fellow commuter. We hate to break it to you seasoned city slickers, but research shows that it's actually faster if everyone just stands still on the escalator.

Two by Two

University of Greenwich researchers have found that, on average, only 25 percent of people walk on escalators. The other 75 percent stand still. That's a problem: The stand-on-the-right, walk-on-the-left rule reserves 50 percent of the escalator for only 25 percent of its riders. And, as Slate points out, "people tend to create more following distance on the walking side of the escalator versus the standing side."

That means longer lines and a slower commute overall — right? That by itself doesn't mean standing is always faster. What if those walkers are going fast enough to make up for the extra space? You'd have to test it in the real world to find out, and no normal person would force grumpy commuters to stand two-by-two on an escalator in the name of science. Luckily, scientists aren't normal people.

In 2015, a team of analysts performed a trial at Holborn station in central London. For three long weeks, they urged commuters to stand still on both sides of the escalator, sometimes having uniformed guards stand so people couldn't pass them, sometimes asking couples to stand two-by-two holding hands, other times giving commuters cheerful instructions through loudspeakers. It worked like a dream, beating the analysts' models by a mile. One escalator that usually carried 12,745 passengers between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. in a normal week was able to carry a whopping 16,220 passengers with the standing rules in place. Many of those passengers were irate — jeers of "I know how to use a bloody escalator!" and "This isn't Russia!" were heard — but on average, they got to their destinations faster than they would have otherwise.

The Commuter's Dilemma

This is a classic example of the conflict between "every man for himself" and "the greater good." Sure, on average, an escalator where everyone stands gets commuters through faster. But as a single person, you'll probably get to the top faster than someone standing. It also just feels better. As fire engineer Michael Kinsey told Slate, "People in a hurry generally do not want to stand still as there is [a] feeling that constantly moving means they are making progress." Not to mention the fact that the standing rule doesn't make sense in all cases — you'll definitely get there faster if you walk on an empty escalator, for instance.

But is a rule like that even possible? Cities all over the world are trying to find out. Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Washington D.C. have flirted with no-walk campaigns, with mixed results. Like the perfect airplane boarding system, the perfect escalator rule may never come to fruition for the simple fact that most people aren't interested in overall efficiency — they just want to get where they're going with as few headaches as possible.

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Standing on the Right and Left of Holborn's Escalators

Written by Ashley Hamer April 13, 2017

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