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Walking on Escalators to Save Time? Don’t, Because It Doesn’t


Ever walk up the left side of an escalator to get to the next floor faster? Turns out, you help cause more congestion, according to various studies.

If you’re of a particular age and from the UK (or perhaps younger and from elsewhere), you may recall a certain scary video from the 70s.

This video is no horror movie, but it frightened a generation nonetheless.

The item I refer to is the safety film which suggests horrors of lifelong disfigurement and pain if one were to improperly use an escalator.


This article is about another issue of impropriety on escalators: standing still vs walking forward.

In New York City, we automatically form two lines on the escalator; the right side is for standers, and the left side for rushers.

Most other cities have a similar unspoken rule, and it’s always seemed, to me at least, to be an excellent and efficient system.

Turns out, we’re all possibly wrong.

standing on escalators London Tube
Taken by Sam X via unsplash.com. [Public Domain].

According to research submitted by Michael J. Kinsey, Edwin R. Galea, and Peter J. Lawrence taken at a London Tube station, on average, 75% of commuters stand still, while about 25% of them walk.

Now, there’s the first problem—

If people who stand stay on one side, leaving walkers room on the other side, this is reserving half the space for only a quarter of people (the 25% who walk). That means three-quarters of commuters (the 75% who stand) are relegated to the other half.

Congestion ensues.

To make matters worse, people who walk (the minority) tend to leave more space between them. Standers are more likely to stand closer to each other.

So, when there’s a rush at the escalators, say, when a packed subway train lets people off, a full escalator of only people standing (side-by-side per step) allows the entire crowd to get from the platform to street level quicker than otherwise.

To get real-world results, Transport for London (TfL), the arm of London’s government responsible for public transportation, conducted an experiment.

Dubbed the “Holborn Tube Escalator Trials,” after the London Tube station in which this experiment took place, station personnel directed passengers going up to the street to make the escalator “stand-only.”

After their experiment was over, the results were shocking and unambiguous: capacity increased by 30%!

Now, of course you, should you be a walker, will get to the next floor faster than if you were to stand. However, this study says that the entire group, all the passengers as one bunch, would benefit if no one chose to walk.

It’s a delayed gratification for the common good.

So, there you have it—don’t walk up escalators!

(I’ll probably still do it, at least until the majority agrees. Science did not take into consideration the homicide which might occur when some brave soul decides to stand on the left in a Brooklyn subway station to “lessen congestion.” And, I hypothesize, that homicide would really cause an hours-long blockage.)

For more, check out this 2002 study. Thanks for reading!

Christian Eilers
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Christian Eilers
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