Transportation Policy

Standing-Only Metro Escalators Are Central Planners' Dream, but Riders' Nightmare

The argument for getting rid of walking on metro station escalators demonstrates the flaws of central planning logic.


Central planning might have suffered a reversal with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it's having a comeback in the increasingly popular idea that commuters should be prohibited from walking on escalators at subway stations.

Last week Destination DC, Washington's nonprofit tourism promotion board, released an ad encouraging Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority—a.k.a. Metro—riders to be "escaleftors," or people who stand on the left side of the escalator rather than follow the established convention of leaving that side for walkers.

The lighthearted idea behind the ad was to encourage hurried D.C. residents to take the time to enjoy the city like a tourist. It nevertheless provoked a storm of controversy from angry riders.

The Washington Post, DCist, Patch, and local TV news were all full of stories of commuters incensed at the idea that standing on the left would actually be encouraged. Others took to social media to vent their rage.

Though the reaction of riders was uniformly negative, the media coverage has had the unfortunate side effect of signal-boosting the idea that standing-only escalators would actually be more efficient, resulting in better functioning transit for everyone.

Both DCist and the Post mention in their coverage an article from Lesley Strawderman, a systems engineering professor at Mississippi State University, who makes the technical case for standing on the left.

"Someone standing needs, on average, a little over three square feet of space, whereas a walking pedestrian needs more than eight square feet," wrote Strawderman for Quartz back in March. "That means a constrained space such as an escalator can comfortably hold more than twice the number of standing pedestrians as walking pedestrians."

By forcing everyone to stand, says Strawderman, we would reduce the space each individual person needs, increasing the number of people who can stand on the escalator at once, and speeding up the rate at which the machines can carry commuters in and out of stations.

Strawderman cites as proof of concept an experiment conducted on the London Underground (a.k.a. the Tube).

There, transit planners made the escalators at a typically congested station standing-only. The change boosted the number of people moved by an escalator in an hour by 27 percent. A follow-up experiment at the same station produced similar results.

In a separate study, researchers at Capgemini Consulting, a London firm, timed themselves traveling on Tube escalators, and then input that data into a simulation. They found that when 40 percent of people walked, it took standers 138 seconds, and walkers 46 seconds, to get up the escalator. Standing-only escalators got everyone up in 59 seconds, reported the New York Times. 

The gains in average speed, argue standing-only advocates, necessitates that we get rid of selfish walking on escalators.

"Allowing people to walk up the left does allow some individuals to move faster," writes Strawderman, but "walkers' varied speeds relative to the rest of the traffic hinders overall efficiency. To improve the overall system, the system-level efficiency is what should be considered."

Slate had a similarly egalitarian take when covering the London experiment in 2016, writing that "The [standing-only] approach asks people to do something they are often bad at: delaying instant gratification in the interest of a greater good."

The problem with this argument is the problem with all arguments that put the interests of central planners, focused on system-wide averages and aggregates, above the interests and decisions of the people who actually inhabit these systems.

Allowing walking on the escalators gives commuters a choice: clamber up the escalator as quickly as possible, or take the less strenuous option of just standing. People who choose to walk are saving their time, people who choose to stand are saving their energy. Both groups are making a trade-off based on what matters more to them.

People who want to make everyone stand are ignoring this. Instead, they are slowing down the people who value their time the most while speeding up escalator trips for those who are willing to trade away time for comfort.

The costs of standing-only escalators are thus borne by people who will really feel it, while the benefits accrue to people who don't really want them.

Getting rid of walking might be more "efficient" in that escalators are moving more people per hour, but they are not more efficient in terms of serving the interests of the individuals riding those escalators.

This is why attempts to get rid of walking produce such angry, visceral reactions from riders. The Guardian recorded some of commuters' reactions to London's "successful" experiment:

"This is a charter for the lame and lazy!" said one. "I know how to use a bloody escalator!" said another. The pilot was "terrible," "loopy," "crap," "ridiculous," and a "very bad idea"; in a one-hour session, 18 people called it "stupid." A customer who was asked to stand still replied by giving the member of staff in question the finger. One man, determined to stride to the top come what may, pushed a child to one side. "Can't you let us walk if we want to?" asked another. "This isn't Russia!"

There's wisdom in the insults these Londoners were hurling; they knew they were getting a raw deal from the transit planners experimenting on them, and they weren't afraid to say so.

Separate walking and standing lanes on escalators is a norm that should be cherished and protected wherever it exists, regardless of what greater good-maximizing, standing-only advocates might say.

(This is, of course, all a moot point in D.C., where none of the Metro escalators work.)