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Should escalators be standing-only? Some cities think so.

In train stations, at least.

Commuters ride an escalator at a subway station in central Tokyo.
AFP/Getty Images

Anyone who’s accustomed to taking public transportation has likely experienced the frustration of people who stand on the side of the escalator meant for walking, blocking your way and slowing you down. Which is why it might seem surprising that a company in Tokyo is trying to eliminate walking on escalators entirely.

Last week, the East Japan Railway Company launched a campaign encouraging commuters to use both sides of the escalator to stand, as opposed to leaving one side open for those who want to walk. According to the Japan Times, the goal of this initiative is to reduce the number of collisions and accidents, as well as to be considerate to elderly passengers and those with disabilities.

Tokyo isn’t the only city to try this out. In 2016, Transport of London launched a similar campaign for three weeks, and Washington, DC, has also tried to make its metro station escalators standing-only, but many people did not abide.

And the practice doesn’t just have to do with safety: If everyone uses the escalator to stand, it could actually make the service more efficient.

This might seem counterintuitive, but the reasoning is actually quite straightforward. As a 2002 study of the London Underground conducted by the London School of Economics explained, if an escalator is tall enough, people simply don’t use the walking lane. This means that one half of the escalator goes unused. According to the study, escalators must be 60 feet or longer for the standing-only rule to increase efficiency. During the aforementioned three-week experiment in London, there was a 30 percent increase in passengers served, meaning about 3,500 more people rode the escalator per hour.

While theoretically this all makes sense, enforcing a rule like this would likely not be easy. It requires commuters to give up some personal freedom and trust that because they are doing so, everyone is getting to where they need to go faster and more safely. But many people seem unhappy with the idea.

When I asked on Twitter whether a standing-only rule for escalators would bother people, I got an avalanche of affirmative replies. One person responded, “I think it’s outrageous. It’s a stairway, not a ride.” Another said, “Bad idea despite supposed increased capacity … One side for walking, one for standing makes much more sense as some people are in a rush, some are not.”

Mostly, people expressed confusion about what problem the new rule was trying to solve. Because not everyone reads about escalator capacity theories, the knee-jerk reaction is that eliminating a walking lane on escalators would slow everything down. So the question then becomes: Would educating people on the reason for the change make a difference in their behavior? Would you give up your ability to rush up the escalator if it meant that the general public would be better served?

My tweet turned up some anecdotal evidence that people’s minds could actually be changed if the benefits of the policy were explained. One reader sent me an email asking, “Who is the rule supposed to serve?” accompanied by an Anthony Bourdain quote: “Escalators are there to help you walk faster, not to avoid walking entirely, you fat, useless hump.” When I sent him a link to the 2002 study and asked if it would change his opinion, he replied, “I think it has!” Another reader responded saying the rule would absolutely bother her, but after sending her the study, she changed her mind, saying, “It seems like it’s more of a kind of community efficiency.”

Other people, however, were unmoved. One reader emailed me saying, “I can’t imagine this rule being implemented in New York, I certainly wouldn’t follow it … if there’s some sort of ticketing or penalty in place for walking down an escalator, I’d find that outrageous, it would end up hurting lower-income people the most and there’s enough of that in our legal statutes.” After reading the study, they still didn’t see the rule as enforceable, saying, “I don’t see it as culturally workable in New York and I’m still worried the implementation of the rule would disproportionately harm poor and minority communities.”

Another reader was skeptical of the parameters of the study and whether it could be widely applied: “With that many observed characteristics different than what this small test study considered, there would have to be a more thorough examination of how this would work in DC-like conditions for me to be convinced of any necessary efficiency benefits for it to be worth the cultural backlash. Also, Metro has enough real problems that need fixing, let’s work on those first.”

It remains to be seen how this escalator policy will work in Tokyo. But for commuters in America, where transit is notoriously underfunded and plagued with issues, being forced to stand on an escalator would be unlikely to improve an already less-than-perfect system. Besides, given how frequently transit escalators break down, you may end up walking no matter what the rules are.

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