The British are as conservative as cats — like most people — and dislike innovation. So fooling around with the convention for escalators to have two sides — the right hand side for folks to stand and the left for people to walk — is likely to cause consternation. But it seems that stopping this division will paradoxically lead to faster throughput, less crowding, and fewer injuries.
The theory, if counterintuitive, is also pretty compelling. Think about it. It’s all very well keeping one side of the escalator clear for people in a rush, but in stations with long, steep walkways, only a small proportion are likely to be willing to climb. In lots of places, with short escalators or minimal congestion, this doesn’t much matter. But a 2002 study of escalator capacity on the Underground found that on machines such as those at Holborn, with a vertical height of 24 metres, only 40% would even contemplate it. By encouraging their preference, TfL [Transport for London] effectively halves the capacity of the escalator in question, and creates significantly more crowding below, slowing everyone down. When you allow for the typical demands for a halo of personal space that persist in even the most disinhibited of commuters — a phenomenon described by crowd control guru Dr John J Fruin as “the human ellipse”, which means that they are largely unwilling to stand with someone directly adjacent to them or on the first step in front or behind — the theoretical capacity of the escalator halves again. Surely it was worth trying to haul back a bit of that wasted space.
Paul Stoneman, one of Harrison’s colleagues, did some preliminary calculations. In theory, he found, getting people to stand on both sides would mean that 31 more passengers would get onto the escalator each minute — an increase of 28%. Holborn seemed like the perfect test case, not only for the rake of its escalators, but also for its rush-hour stampede: “When you come round the corner and see this throng,” says Stoneman, “you just go, blinking flip, I don’t want to use this station, it’s a nightmare. It’s like Bank.” But success was by no means a given: as Lau also noted, commuters in Hong Kong are vastly different to British ones. In a wash-up meeting to analyse the results of the trial a few weeks after it was completed, Stoneman asked the dozen people in the room: “How many years have we been saying, ‘stand on the right’? It’s quite a significant behaviour to change.”
So, another example of countering apparently sensible behaviors leading to better outcomes. Here, those individuals who might personally benefit by a slightly faster passage through the Tube when the social convention of walking on the left hand of escalators is in force must be compelled to accept the improved throughput for all by standing still instead.
And another proof that you can’t understand social impacts of changed affordances until you get very, very close.
Originally published at stoweboyd.com on 17 January 2016.