Is it bad to walk on an escalator?

In a recent CBC opinion piece titled Vancouver, you’re using escalators wrong, but that’s (mostly) OK, The Early Edition’s About Here columnist Uytae Lee made a case against walking on escalators, using the prospect of increased efficiency, as his main reason. Standing only, he said, could move 13,500 people per hour, while the locally ubiquitous stand-on-right/walk-on-left model moves only 7,500.

The author might meet his efficiency standards “with two people on each step”, but he should look at his pictures more closely. People aren’t jammed in two-to-a-step, they’re spaced out because Canadians like a lot of personal space and/or they don’t want to be accused of goosing strangers. In the article’s last photo, they’re often two to a step all right, but there’s often a whole empty step in front of and behind them. If no one walks, but everyone leaves every second step empty, then you’re looking at 6,750 people per hour instead of 13,500.

Meanwhile, on the escalator that has standers on right, walkers on left, people appear to leave an empty step in front of them less often, at least at peak times – less than 25% of the time, judging by image #2. Thus, the escalator with walkers may actually be carrying *more* people per hour than the one with only standers (or may at least have comparable “efficiency”). It’s perhaps worth noting that this spacing likely evens out the weight somewhat between the walking and standing sides, so the suggested negative effects on the mechanisms as a result of weight imbalance are probably less significant than suggested. On the other hand, I will concede that people who stand may be (in aggregate) statistically heavier than the walkers, who by nature of their being habitual walkers are getting more physical exercise than habitual standers, and thus are likely lighter in weight, so maybe that cancels that out.

It seems also to be appropriate to question the author’s assumption that walkers are in a hurry. Maybe they’ve been sitting at a desk all day and relish the opportunity to move their legs. Or maybe they’d just rather walk up stairs and escalators than ride passively so that they don’t have to spend time and money using a stairmaster later in the day.

I will concede, however, that some are undoubtedly hurrying to get to somewhere where there’s a much better chance of finding a lengthy queue than at a SkyTrain escalator: the bus stop at which they plan to transfer. If Translink wants to cut down on this allegedly unsafe escalator-hurrying they might, say, put articulated buses on the #25 route at rush hour so that riders don’t have to watch two full 40 foot buses go by while they wait at the back of a long queue that wraps round the corner and continues south on Cambie Street, while they scan their apps for non-existent Cars-to-Go in the neighbourhood (yes, I confess, some personal experience may have inspired the preceding passage). No wonder some are running up the escalator: they want to get in that queue before everyone else on the escalator.

And while we’re talking about Translink, it’s interesting that they think walking on an escalator is unsafe, but they prohibit people from transporting bikes on escalators. This sounds reasonable at first, but then you realize that they provide two other options: one is the elevator, which in most SkyTrain stations is small, solitary, slow, often urine-imbued, and frequently either broken or undergoing maintenance. The other option is the stairs. Yes, Translink actually thinks it’s safer to carry your bike on stairs than it is to stand with one on an escalator. Now there’s an accident waiting to happen. Fix that and we can talk about the dangers of escalator walking.

And tell me more about these escalator accidents, please. To whom are they happening, and where on the escalator, and in what conditions? Are they happening in the middle of escalators, or at the top or bottom as people are stepping on and off? Are they happening to walkers, or old ladies with bad knees and vision? I would not be surprised to learn that many accidents occur as people are stepping on to escalators.

I’ve ridden a lot of escalators (and used to work for Skytrain), and I’ve only ever witnessed two escalator accidents. In one, a small child, who was clambering all over the place and hanging off the belt swinging his legs around as his mother ignored him, had his foot sucked in between the step and the escalator’s side, which caused the safety mechanism to shut the escalator off, happily preventing the whole leg from being consumed. Much wailing ensued (from both child and mother). The foot stayed there until someone in authority came to pry him out. In the meantime, everyone else had to safely walk up the escalator. The other accident was a drunk who was standing on the right, as is apparently ideal, but got dizzy and fell forward. Much bleeding ensued.

I’m okay with talking about accidents, but if you’re going to imply that they’re caused by walkers, how about evidence? (The NIH link that the author provided is inconclusive on this question, but alcohol appears to be a notable factor in many accidents, as is being female and elderly, a cohort that, I suspect, is the one that is the most unlikely to walk on escalators while intoxicated).

But putting aside all of that, who decided that efficiency is a necessary characteristic of escalatory people-moving in the first place? I rarely see queues to board escalators in Vancouver, and even then they are generally not lengthy, move satisfactorily, and proceed cooperatively. Must we milk everything with Protestant-inspired zeal for maximum efficiency?


Photo by Arthur Edelman on Unsplash


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