We’re doing it all wrong, the escalator version

Also, Cate and Sam, both fast walkers who like to zoom by people standing on the right on escalators start to think more about disability and escalator etiquette.

Image of an escalator, grey, with the word "walk" on the left side in green and "stand" on the right side in orange.

Act 1: The story begins
It all started with friends are sharing this story on Facebook, Why the escalator etiquette of ‘stand right, walk left’ is wrong.

As with zipper merge our intuitions about fairness are getting in the way of doing what’s most efficient. You know the zipper merge issue, right? We’d do best, use up the most space on the road, and merge in the most efficient way possible if we merged at the last moment. But at least in Canada, we’re very polite. It feels wrong to zoom in the the lane that will end and merge at the last moment. And because they’re convinced it’s unfair, people don’t let you in. Other drivers enforce the norm of fairness. Of course you wouldn’t be zooming in an empty lane if everyone did it. That’s the problem. And the other problem is that the politeness point, the point at which merging is thought to be fair, gets moved further and further back, and you have lots of one lane unused.

See How Canadian Politeness is Killing Efficiency.

So it’s a case where our well developed norms of fairness get it wrong. We’d be better off zipper merging at the last possible minute.

But that’s not our concern here. Today it’s the escalator and a different politeness norm, that of “walk left, stand right.” As someone who zooms up escalators past all the standing people, I like that rule. And on days when I want to stand I like standing right, knowing that I’m not in anyone’s way. What’s the issue? Well, the problem is that many more people stand right than walk left and elevators wear out unevenly. Owners of escalators want us to abandon our norm of stand right, walk left.

The London Underground took down their “walk left, stand right” signs after deciding it is more efficient for everyone to stand. The Nanjing Metro did the same.  And so did the TTC here in Toronto. But removing the signs isn’t enough. Most people still think that “stand right and walk left” is the etiquette rule for escalators.

So how do you do away with a norm that’s strongly grounded in deeply held beliefs about fairness? It’s tricky.

 

Poster that says "keep in mind that the right portion of the escalator is for standing while the left is for walking." There are three people on the right standing and one on the left walking.

 

Act 2: Sam and Cate sound all judgey about standing

Also, you might ask, Cate and I did anyway, why do more people stand right than walk left? We asked on Facebook, why aren’t more people walking? We sounded pretty judgey about it. WALK PEOPLE!

Admittedly maybe we should have thought first before issuing commandments about walking but luckily our friends are good at correcting us. I like that about my friends.

You see at first I speculated that it’s the good side/bad side of universal design and the idea of “build it and they’ll come.” What do I mean? Well, mobility aids like escalators and moving sidewalks are terrific for reasons of accessibility.

In the case of the escalators I encounter most often, the ones on the TTC, they serve to make public transit, access to the subway, more accessible. And the universal design aspect is cool. You build them for people with disabilities but it turns out that lots of people–tired people, people who are unstable on their feet, people carrying babies, groceries etc prefer them.

But, here’s the bad side. In a society where there is a rise in extreme sedentary behavior, where there are people for whom making a meal is a workout, who drive to work, sit at a desk and watch TV all night, escalators are part of the problem. I worried about this in my post about home elevators.

So one thing, escalators, can be part of one solution–making transit and more places accessible–and part of another problem, increasing rates of extreme sedentary behavior.

Act 3: Sam and Cate get schooled (rightly) about disability

As one person pointed out on our Facebook discussion of this page, “Just stop it. I can’t walk up the escalators and you can’t tell who is disabled by looking.”

Agreed. Agreed.

Another friend wrote, “Apart from the ableism concern (which is important), it’s worth noting that there’s a difference between a short escalator at a mall and long, steep ones to/from subways (what the column opens with). Even for folks with no mobility issues, not all escalators equally walkable.”

Agreed.

More friends chimed in. “I’m young and a runner, hiker, cyclist and as part of training have run stairs.But a few years ago I developed fascia constriction in my calves (part genetics, part a result of being super active and using the crap out of my jacked calves). I do physical therapy for it, but it is chronic. On many days I can run and walk miles but I cannot take even a short set of stairs without experiencing profound pain- enough to drop me to the ground and make me cry.Feel free Sam to use my story in your post.”

I went off and read some more things about movements to get people to climb stairs and the anti-ableist critique of the campaigns.

See Elevator Shaming and Why Pro Stairs Health Campaigns Kind of Suck and Elevator Shaming.

I wondered how can we nudge people to walk more while at the same time not making those who can’t feel nudged and guilty? Is there a nudge we can make that’s not ablest?

Here is a bad kind of nudge. Imagine if you get in an elevator on the ground floor and pressed 2 and a recorded voice says. “Do you know that’s only a single flight of stairs? Do you need to use the elevator? If so press 2 again.” That’s pretty awful for the person in the wheelchair. Worse for the person with a less visible disability who may feel pressured to explain to others in the elevator. This idea is discussed here.

I remember that I used to feel funny using the elevator when I had a stress fracture. I couldn’t walk, certainly not upstairs, but I was allowed to ride my bike to work.

Act 4: Other solutions

Why are walkers on the escalators anyway? Maybe we are the ones who should change our behavior and take the stairs. Now as Tracy pointed out having more stairs available is great. I love that at Pearson airport in Toronto. When I get off a flight I charge up the stairs while there is a wait to get on the escalator.It’s the joy of travelling with a backpack rather than a wheelie suitcase.

Seems we’re all chiming in here. Sarah says the real issue is car culture and driving and that things like escalators are a drop in the inactivity bucket. Don’t you dare blame universal design here, she says. It’s all about driving and cars.

And then my good friend Sally said maybe no one cares about efficiency. Let the treads on escalators wear out unevenly. How bad is that? If the stand right/walk left norm allows standers to stand comfortably and speedsters to zoom by without worrying, maybe it’s a good rule to have even if it comes at a price?

Why should we care about efficiency at all costs? You know what? I think maybe that’s right. Me, I’m going to continue to walk left, zoom left most of the time, and when I’m tired, stand right.

How about you? What do you think?

About Sam B

Philosopher, feminist, parent, and cyclist!

5 thoughts on “We’re doing it all wrong, the escalator version

  1. Jean says:

    At major public transit and airport internal transportation systems, we provide all parallel modes to get to same important transfer points, services: for walking, escalator use, wheelchairs, walkers and little golf carts. Only way to quell the judgemental and for us to accommodate to all.

    I actually don’t pay attention to walking the stairs in my office building ..I work on 6th floor. I take the elevator I bike, walk or take transit to work. I don’t have car and therefore am not motivated.

    It is judgemental that I don’t take the stairs. Not even in my condo building unless it’s an emergency or next floor.

    I don’t have to constantly “move”. I already am…by sheer virtue I don’t have a car.

    But yes, lots of people might judge me and have no clue. But that’s ok. I’ve been mistakenly judged for wrong things in life and it won’t stop.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Vicki Newman says:

    Perhaps escalator engineers need to design for the “stand right and walk left” behavior, rather than forcing the users to adapt to their original design intentions. If the right side is wearing out faster, then strengthen the design for future escalators. Also, they could refit existing escalators with a strengthening add on kit. It seems more like an engineering problem to me rather than a social/behavioral one.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. fieldpoppy says:

    I love how we originally talked about writing this in two voices but you covered it all so well I had nothing to add ;-).

    I also appreciate the reminder that there are a lot of people for whom walking is impossible/hard/just not appealing — and I am learning to withhold judgement even when people are standing on both sides of the escalator chatting away. And — I’m also pondering the whole way we have become a more and more sedentary culture.

    Here is one example I encounter every day. I live on the third floor of my condo and never take the elevator when I come in on the main floor. (And I only take the elevator about half the time when I park on P3, but I realize that climbing up six stories is way more daunting than two; I rarely encounter anyone on the parking stairs).

    But for my every day entries on the main floor. In addition to the “always trying to maximize my steps” principle I follow, I have done this weird calculation I’ve never said out loud before. The stairs are right next to the lobby desk which is directly under my door, two floors down. I have figured out that if I walk down the hall to the elevator, get a lift and then walk back down the hall on the third floor to my door, it’s actually the same number of steps as if I walk up the stairs. It makes no sense to me to avoid the stairs.

    But. When I have visitors, I always feel weird making them go up the stairs — because it is really not a norm that if you are in a building with an elevator you would take some not-so-attractive stairs.

    Of course there are people in my life with mobility issues and I keep that in mind — but I’m also conscious that people tend to make a kind of “oh, we’re taking the stairs!” kind of reaction even when they are people I’ve just, you know, gone for a run or a bike ride with.

    So that is the question I ponder — while realizing it is about personal choice. But how much do things like elevators and escalators imply that we are “supposed” to be standing still instead of moving, even when we can?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Kiara says:

    Fellow TTC rider here. I am a firm advocate for stand right walk left. The pace at which people move in public is horribly slow. I have family members with mobility issues and am sensitive to that issue, but in my ideal world, there is a fast lane and a slow lane. I simply love walking fast! I love to move! I can’t contain my frustration when zombie-like crowds trudge along, dead inside and out.

    Here in Toronto, I think we have a pretty split mix of people walking and standing on the escalator and I hope that continues. This hope is selfish and it serves my sanity. I really want people of all abilities to feel safe and secure, as well, not being knocked over by people going fast. The logical solution is to keep the stand right walk left etiquette alive and well.

    Now, when it comes to zipper merge, I learned about that at 16 and still employ it to this day. Canadian manners be damned 🙂

    Like

  5. flyawayki says:

    Fellow TTC rider here. I am a firm advocate for stand right walk left. The pace at which people move in public is horribly slow. I have family members with mobility issues and am sensitive to that issue, but in my ideal world, there is a fast lane and a slow lane. I simply love walking fast! I love to move! I can’t contain my frustration when zombie-like crowds trudge along, dead inside and out.

    Here in Toronto, I think we have a pretty split mix of people walking and standing on the escalator and I hope that continues. This hope is selfish and it serves my sanity. I really want people of all abilities to feel safe and secure, as well, not being knocked over by people going fast. The logical solution is to keep the stand right walk left etiquette alive and well.

    Now, when it comes to zipper merge, I learned about that at 16 and still employ it to this day. Canadian manners be damned 🙂

    Like

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