As It Happens

Walk left — stand right. Why London Underground put the brakes on escalator etiquette

Standing corrected. London's Underground conducts a study and finds it is more efficient if passengers don't walk up the escalator.
Commuters make their way on the escalator at Angel Underground station. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

A study from London's Underground transportation system finds that it's more efficient for everyone to stand on an escalator rather than have commuters walk up the left side. 

"It's not something we are trying to do everywhere, but in some stations like Holborn in particular, we need to try some different things because demand on the Underground is rising really rapidly," Mark Evers, Customer Strategy Director, tells As It Happens guest-host Helen Mann.

A man walks past the entrance to the Central Line's Bank Underground station in London. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

The London Underground is studying whether standing on both sides of the escalators can be successfully implemented at stations where escalators carry passengers over a height of 20 meters, such as the ones in Holborn, one of the city's busiest and deepest stations.

The theory behind the study goes like this: during busy times, the majority of commuters want to stand and ride the escalator to the top. 

"The vast majority of people don't walk up the escalator. What we end up doing is half the escalator is utilized and the other half of the escalator only carries fresh air," says Evers.

The results show that when both sides of the escalator are utilized for standing only 112.5 people per minute can use the escalator — that's up from 81.25 people per minute under the current system.

Commuters use escalators inside a Central Line underground station in central London (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

Critics, however, decry the findings as bad science. Citing a 2002 study from the London School of Economics, the Indian Institute of Management and supported by the Underground, a writer at the blog StepJockey says there are other, healthier options that London's Underground aren't considering.

The study, which was also carried out at Holborn station, has two other suggestions for increasing capacity:

  • Ensure people use the walking side of the escalator at rush hours, giving an output of 120 people per minute
  • Encourage walking on both sides of the escalator, increasing capacity to 132 people per minute.

The report concludes that people will not stand on both sides of an escalator simply because they are asked to and if they do, they will only do it for a short amount of time. It also states that the new system punishes people who are in a rush and that is unfair.

The 2002 study, however, doesn't say how you would get people to walk up the escalator when they don't want to. Evers says it was a challenge to get Londoners to break their habits of standing on one side and walking on the other.

That's where a clever film projection comes into the picture. A smiling woman guides commuters to stand on both sides of the escalator. 

Evers is quick to point out that they weren't forcing people to stand, and people had the option of walking up other escalators in the station.

London's Underground is the oldest subway system in the world. ( Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

"We are not taking away choice, but for the good of all, we have encouraged people to stand on both sides."

Evers also thinks things have changed in the 14 years since the original study was carried out. The Underground will look at the results of their newest trial before deciding how to proceed.

"If we're able to demonstrate through the trial that we can convince people to behave differently then we'll take a look at other stations that have longer escalators."


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