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.

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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.)

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  1. I assume anyone is blocking my passage has a accomplice behind me trying to pick my pocket. Of course it’s D.C. the entire population is going to pick your pocket.

    1. Holy crap, that Strawderman guy – Christ, what an asshole. A Klein bottle asshole.

      1. 1. Are you sure Strawderman is a guy?

        2. It’s a Strawderman argument. 🙂

  2. 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.

    You can’t seriously believe that the length of time it takes an escalator step to get from the bottom to the top varies based on whether or not people are walking on the escalator, can you? This is obviously a joke – if I’m standing on an escalator the time it takes me to get to the top is exactly the same whether everyone else is standing or some are walking. The only way it’s going to take me longer to get to the top if others are walking is if I’m standing on the left and exasperated walkers are constantly kicking my rude ass back down the escalator as they go by.

    1. Being the New York Times they measured people walking up the down escalator.

    2. They double the stander-throughput by changing the walking lane to standing-lane, so that accounts for most (not necessarily all) of the weird math. Of course if that methodology is valid they should compare it to double-walking as well, as happens so frequently in DC because the escalators are busted.

      But even without that comparison, Christian is right that the average time is not the relevant indicator of the efficiency of the system. In economics terms, it’s like looking at productive efficiency without considering allocative efficiency. People have difference time preferences, both generally and contextually, and their behavior changes as a result to reflect that.

      Fuck the planners

    3. This is the math the left wants to teach your children.

    4. You can’t seriously believe that the length of time it takes an escalator step to get from the bottom to the top varies based on whether or not people are walking on the escalator, can you?

      It is if you remember that saving space for “walkers” means fewer “standers” getting on, which means that more “standers” have to stand at the bottom for longer before getting on the escalator.

      Consider the whole system, not just the one part.

      1. Well, in that case it’s not the escalator ride that’s taking longer, it’s the waiting in line to get on the escalator that accounts for the extra time. If we’re counting that way, it takes me 40 minutes to drive to the nearest place I can think of that has an elevator – are we counting that as a 40-minute escalator ride? The only way I can think of the wait time to get on the escalator as a persistent problem is if you didn’t build enough goddamn escalators. If you’ve constantly got a crowd of hundreds of people packed around the bottom of the escalator waiting their turn to get on, you need more escalators, not more sheep.

        1. Exactly. They didn’t build enough escalators. But they don’t have to make that choice: they can instead install two single lane escalators – one for walkers and one for anyone else and then highlight that with signs.

          Alternatively, do we really think we’d get optimized standing traffic? Every step occupied, with no gaps? That’s what 3 sqft means, and in a packed crowd you often can’t embark that fast regardless of walkers – it’s more like every other step, which halves your throughout.

        2. If we’re counting that way […]

          Then you’re looking at the whole system, which yes, includes how do people get to and from the public transit options, parking, time spent looking for parking, traffic congestion on the freeway, and lots of other things.

          It’s useful to drill down to a microcosm (in this case, escalator efficiency) but the whole system is under analysis. In this case, the escalator, along with the immediate context of the escalator, is what’s being looked at.

          And yeah, part of the problem might be “not enough escalators”. When larger projects are being considered, that’s the sort of thing that gets brought up then. When just talking about the system as it is, and what can be changed, “add more escalators” isn’t an option. “Try to convince people to stand on escalators more efficiently”? Is.

          1. I’d like to see one escalator for standing and one for climbing and see how those numbers work out.

            Are we really at the point where we’ve solved every other important problem already and this is next on the list?

      2. That also presupposes maximum standing throughput continuously through the hour. Not knowing DC, but knowing the Tokyo subway, I doubt that’s the case.

        Instead I’d expect surges accompanying train arrivals, with some stations with many train lines being more or less continuous, but most stations being intermittent.

        Then the question isn’t the maximum theoretical throughput of the local system (escalator) but the average time through the whole system (walking into the station to the platform). Since people are all walkers (more: runners) when a train is arriving and they’re not on the platform yet the real calculation is minimum transit time through the system, and their own figures show that walkers are faster (even if at the cost of slowing standers).

        And that’s aside from the cost optimization problem – if I’ve just arrived from an 18 hour flight I don’t care about the rush – I’m exhausted and would happily triple the time to travel if only I could do so laying down. But if I’m running late to the office I care about minimizing transit time at almost any cost.

      3. So, they have a 100-ft long escalator that is 3 feet wide, with 300 square feet of room for transit riders. 150 square feet is dedicated to standing, which at 3 SF per person, accommodates 50 riders at any given point in time. It takes these people 98 seconds to get to the top of the escalator. At the end of 98 seconds, 50 standing passengers have been delivered to the top.

        150 square feet is dedicated to walkers, which at 8 SF per person, accommodates 18.75 walkers at any given time. It takes these people 46 seconds to get to the top of the escalator. At the end of 98 seconds, 40 walking passengers have been delivered to the top of the escalator.

        That means that if you dedicated both sides to standing, you deliver 100 people to the top in 98 seconds, versus 90 with 50% standing and 80 with all walking. That might sound more efficient. But it does not mean that it is faster. It is in fact slower, by a factor of 2.1 or so, for about 45% of your riders.

        If you want to consider the whole system, then consider the people who just missed the blue line train by 30 seconds while standing on the damned escalator for almost an extra minute. Now they have to stand around on the platform for an additional 5-15 minutes waiting for the next one to arrive. Tell them it’s faster.

        1. consider the people who just missed the blue line train by 30 seconds
          Or the commuter rail passengers that just missed a train and now have to wait 30-45 minutes. If it’s the midday train it’s over 2 hours. It probably wouldn’t be as much a problem if Metrorail didn’t have such frequent delays.

    5. I presume, that they are counting time spent waiting to get on the escalator. Because walkers clear the escalator faster, they also spend less time waiting for their turn on the escalator.

  3. If such a policy were announced here, I would simply use my elbows and push past anyone who tried to follow it. So should everyone.

  4. Why does Destination DC want to exacerbate the obesity epidemic?

    1. Exactly! Obviously the solution is to require everyone to *at least* walk while on an escalator.

      1. Better solution. Require everyone going down to use the up escalator and everyone going up to use the down escalator. That’ll burn the old calories!

    2. They have stock in P90X?

  5. 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.

    No, you fucking retard! Walking gets you off the escalator a lot faster and who gives a shit how many people can fit on an escalator at one time – assuming you’re walking in the same direction as the escalator how the hell are you somehow blocking people behind you? You’re getting the hell out of the way of the people behind you and leaving more empty space for them to fit into. If you want to speed up the escalator ride, prohibit standing on the escalator and make everybody sprint – or would sprinting somehow magically be even slower than walking? I mean, this thing doesn’t even make a lick of sense – how could walking on an escalator possibly make the trip slower for anybody else?

    1. Their models are based on either every other stair occupied, but only on the right to leave room for walkers, or every stair occupied in alternating left-right order.

      For example at an airport it’s common to put your roller bag on the step in front of you, right behind the next guy who’s doing the same thing, all leaving the left side open for those running to catch a flight. But if instead you out the bag next to you on the same step then every step could be occupied. With lots (too much) time at airports I just don’t think it’ll work like that – getting on and off regularly takes two steps of time unless you’re really on the bounce, so this is a case where theoretical throughout far outpaces real world throughout, and in a way their experiments don’t show.

  6. Here’s a novel idea, build two escalators…one for the walkers and one for loafers. Boom, everyone is happy.

    1. Escalators for walkers are called “stairs”.

    2. You’re idea is close to being sensible, but not quite.
      The concept of 2 travel paths is dead on. Building an escalator specifically for those who wish to walk is, to be blunt, retarded. Normal stairs is all that would be required, and cheaper.

  7. Wait till they require escalator riders to wear helmets.

    1. Just the walkers.

    2. Harrison Bergeron, it’s coming.

  8. Considering the lack of maintenance not getting on the Metro system is the better answer.

  9. “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.”

    But this is mass transit; we have already made the determination that the rules of socialism prevail in these facilities. Anyone advocating for personal preference should be re-educated.

    Not to mention escalators are discriminatory against the disabled, and everyone should have to take an elevator to prevent embarrassment to the wheelchair bound.

    #noescalators

    1. There are escalators that can take wheelchairs. Pretty rare because they’re less efficient at moving pedestrians, but they exist.

      The basic idea is that instead of a step being a foot wide it’s more like 6 feet wide, and has a commensurately long approach and departure angle. They only work where you have a very long run up, obviously, so they wouldn’t work in all places. If you’re having trouble picturing it, think of moving platforms sliding up a ramp rather than stairs.

      Steep elevators can get close to a 1:1 ratio (not allows under US building code though), while wheelchair escalators are at best a 1:6, so in practice you’d need at least 6 times as much distance to get the same height. That’s only really practical in rare circumstances where the geography essentially forces it anyway, and the US building model is to force the ground into a flat plain rather than follow a contour, so we just don’t see them here.

  10. All riders will have to suffer because some nannyscold from Destination DC got stuck behind some 3 ft. wide yokel from Kansas and thought it would be a good idea to regularize escalator positioning.

    1. Wouldn’t the nannyscold be the one in the way? Otherwise wouldn’t the ad be chiding the blockers?

    2. You seriously think DC doesn’t breed it’s own fatties?

      1. Sorry, its.

      2. Yes, I’ve seen Bill Clinton’s Rolodex.

  11. So what?
    Public transportation wasn’t built for the masses.
    It was built for the convenience and profit of our ruling elites who take the time and trouble to rob us of our hard earned wages.
    Besides.
    What would you rather take to work?
    The dirty, crowded and dangerous train, or a Ford Mustang Cobra GT ragtop?
    We all know the answer to that one.

    1. Public transportation wasn’t built for the masses.
      Metro is a jobs program.

  12. Or we could have separate walking and standing escalators. Or wider escalators that accommodate both. Or literally any other free market solution that doesn’t involve municipal agencies telling people how to walk.

  13. People tend to figure out these things on their own. Studies aren’t required.

  14. Like “teaching to the bottom” (of the class), all that happens is that the whole thing stops working. Grandma can stand on the right, and little Johnny can run up and burn off some steam. What’s not to love?
    This is just controlling folks for the sake of controlling folks.

  15. Holy shit, I was watching that and ready for the “don’t be this guy” to point to the asshole blocking foot traffic.

    Interesting to see the central planners actively encouraging inconsiderate behavior, though.

  16. The lighthearted idea behind the ad was to encourage hurried D.C. residents to take the time to enjoy the city like a tourist.

    This makes no sense to me. Enjoying a city “like a tourist” means enjoying the interesting parts of the city. There’s nothing interesting about a fucking escalator.

    1. Tourists don’t flock to the longest escalator in the Americas?

  17. Commence the DC Airlift, dropping supplies on those poor standers huddled to the right side of the escalators waiting for the bottom to arrive.

  18. I spent ten years commuting to D.C. on the Metro. Summer was always the worst, what with the tourists taking all the seats so the people going to/from work had to stand the entire trip. Now the wankers running things want the workers to have to wait on the tourists on the escalators.

    Jeez, I’m glad I don’t work in D.C. anymore.

  19. It seems that a reasonable, although impractical to enforce, policy would be “Stand Right, Stand Left only if you have to wait more than 2700 milliseconds to enter on the right”.

    Once people begin to stand left, everyone after them will begin to be forced to stand left as well so the throughput will increase to “standing only” at those critical times and will quickly recover when the surge is over.

    This seems like a good thing for the common good. It is not unlike the generally accepted rule of standing in line instead of cutting to the front of the line. Cutting would, of course, reduce wait time for those who are impervious to scorn and doing the cutting, but it increases the wait time for everyone else already in the line.

    Or implement “toll elevators” which are “walk right, run left” – perhaps demand pricing with a minimum of 10¢ per ride.

  20. Stand on the right, climb on the left. What’s so difficult?

  21. Standing is great for dramatic effect, especially going down, a la Rain Man, but running or even going up backwards is what really brings down the house, as in American Werewolf in London.

    1. Standing is great for dramatic effect, especially going down, a la Rain Man

      Isn’t that how we got Trump?

    2. You know who else preferred going down?

      1. Myra Breckinridge?

      2. Kamala Harris?

      3. Mike Tyson’s first 18 opponents?

      4. Jacques Cousteau?

  22. 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.

    But here’s the thing. Standers aren’t in a hurry. Walkers are.

  23. Here’s an idea: Turn off the escalators and make everyone walk/climb. Look around you – how many people’s health would that help?! LOL

    1. “How dare you?”

      1. Only way to have fun and have a good time is to head on to transladies and spend some quality time

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

    Is that supposed to be funny or something? Snark is not funny, it’s just overdone and juvenile. Every time I visit the DC resident kid all the escalators seem to work. Am I supposed to take this writer seriously?

    1. Lighten up, Francis.

  25. The Ministry of Silly Walks approves

  26. This is the perfect metaphor for public education, housing, and many other public things-let’s slow down the smarter or faster people to achieve equality. Another thing is that at some DC metro stations, you have to take an escalator to another platform to switch trains, so if you’re rushing to get somewhere, you are not going to tolerate standing only escalators. Planners have weird ideas that don’t seem to account for actual needs of anyone.

  27. Because the metro isn’t already socialism? At any rate, in my experience, I can walk up the stairs faster than I can walk up the escalator. Or is it just about central planners are a libertarian’s wet dream?

  28. I wish I could say I was surprised at the atrocious grasp of arithmetic most commenters show, but anyway.
    When a train full of people head for the escalators, they spend more time shuffling toward the escalator than they do on it. If people stand rather than walk, more people per minute can ride, the line moves faster, and your total time to get out of the station is less.
    For anyone who demands his God-given right to walk, there’s always the stairs.

  29. while speeding up escalator trips for those who are willing to trade away time for comfort.

    I must be missing something. I don’t see how this would speed up escalators. The only way to speed up an escalator for those who are standing is if they start walking themselves. (The only way to slow down an escalator for those who are standing is if they walk backwards.) As far as walkers, if the escalator is crowded enough to make a difference, they won’t have room to walk anyway and they’ll become “standers”.

    1. The big difference is likely in wait time to get on the escalator

  30. You don’t save that much time by walking while riding an escalator, but it feels like you do and that’s what counts.

  31. Why have a 2nd escalator reserved for the people who choose to walk ? Intelligent people would suggest normal stairs for those who wish to walk.
    Some of you obviously have no business on a website named “reason” ????????‍♂️

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