The first escalators were installed on the London Underground in 1911 - at Earl’s Court tube station. And since then, there has been one simple rule that has become permanently etched into the minds of Londoners: Stand. On. The. Right.
This is so institutionalised, it has become a useful way of singling out clueless tourists. If you’ve ever stood on the left on an escalator in London, the under the breath swearing and harrumphing coming from behind you was indeed meant for you. Londoners simply do not stand on the left. That is where people who walk up and down the escalator go.
And this is why it felt somewhat heretical last year when Transport for London (TfL) announced that it would be conducting a trial: For six months morning rush hour passengers arriving at Holborn station - one of the busiest and most overloaded on the Tube network - would be instructed to stand on both sides. No walking allowed.
The trial followed a shorter three week test in November 2015, and now thanks to another opportune Freedom of Information Request, Gizmodo UK has managed to exclusively get its hands on what appears to be an initial analysis of the results, as well as a detailed analysis of the original 3 week trial. And yes, we assume that TfL probably hates us too. Here’s what they found out.
The first question is obvious: Why bother with such a study? What is TfL trying to prove? We don’t need any special TfL documents to tell us that.
Much as we saw with the wifi tracking trial, the goal is ultimately to increase the capacity of existing stations. The Tube is basically running at full capacity because of a combination of Victorian engineering, historic underinvestment by the government, and London’s population continuing to rise. As we know from Crossrail, building new lines and stations is expensive - so if any extra capacity can be squeezed out of existing infrastructure, everyone wins: More people can get into the tube network and complete their journey quicker.
Holborn is a particularly busy station - the 14th busiest over all and the 7th busiest Tube station that doesn’t have a National Rail line attached to it. Commuters regularly discover that during particularly big rushes, as with other stations on the network, entry to the station has to be strictly controlled to avoid overcrowding. Which, if you’re stuck in a queue outside the station for ages, is intensely annoying.
So the rationale may seem obvious - but what’s interesting is that in the earlier report on the 2015 test - is that it reveals one of the key goals was not just to reduce congestion (and improve safety) but also to see how easy it is to change customer behaviour.
In other words: TfL could change the rules so that we’re not supposed to walk up escalators: But how many of us will actually pay attention and obey? How easy is it for TfL to break down the psychological barriers in our minds and make us behave differently? This will be absolutely key if they want to roll out standing-only escalators across the Tube. And if they can persuade us that standing only on the right is no longer the way things work - then perhaps nudges could also be used to make us behave more efficiently in other places on the transport network.
Escalator Height vs Laziness
It turns out that Holborn isn’t the first time escalators have been studied - and that the question of whether standing or walking is better appears to be somewhat contentious amongst academics.
Apparently in 2015 someone from the organisation’s Escalator Passenger Safety Strategy Group (which is apparently a thing) carried out a study of Canary Wharf station and revealed that if everyone in that station was made to stand instead of walk, it would reduce overall escalator capacity by 10%. Oh no.
But then on the other hand, there’s this weirdly fascinating 2002 study, which based on its theoretical numbers should mean that standing could be better at Holborn.
And the reason for this discrepancy is height: At Canary Wharf, the escalators only rise by 10m - but Holborn has a much larger 24m escalator. And for passengers, this makes a big difference. It turns out that (surprise!) when an escalator is massive, we’re less inclined to walk up than when it is short.
The chart above compares willingness to walk up versus the height of the escalator. And as you can see for 10m Canary Wharf, virtually everyone is willing to walk - whereas for 24m Holborn, only 40% of people are willing to do the same. (Angel station is the longest on the Tube - with a rise of 27m - and this model would suggest that only around 5% of people - presumably sickening athletic types who post maps of their runs on Facebook - would walk it.)
So given that the circumstances are very different - could standing have an impact on Holborn’s escalator congestion?
In the 2016 trial, during morning peak escalator 5 was kept as normal, so passengers could walk up it. Escalator 6 and 7 were converted to be standing only.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all of this is that the trial did appear to show that making people stand did indeed increase the “throughput” - the number of people using the escalator. But this wasn’t the case all of the time.
“Greater throughputs are seen on escalators 6 and 7 when there is a low proportion of passengers walking up the escalators”, the report notes, adding, “This indicates that during very busy periods a greater throughput can be achieved when passengers stand on both sides of the escalator.”
The trial found that on escalator 5, the maximum throughput was 115 passengers per minute when around 40-60% of people chose to walk up. But on the standing-only escalators throughput maxed out at 151 passengers per minute, when obviously (close to) no one was walking.
This doesn’t completely debunk the earlier Canary Wharf trial, as the researchers also concluded that when the escalators are less busy, standing or walking doesn’t really make much difference. "The results show that for throughputs of up to 100 passengers/minute, the correlation between the proportion of passengers walking up the escalator and throughput is not significant”, it concludes.
So there you have it - when the Tube is super busy, such as during the morning rush hour, it is indeed better if you stand rather than walk up the escalators.
The 2016 trial appears to match the conclusions from the much shorter 2015 trial. In that earlier trial, the researchers noted that while it was being carried out the station only had to go into “station control” mode once. This is when staff in the station restrict entrance and exits to the building, as well as how passengers are allowed to move around the station in order to manage overcrowding - something that the 2015 report notes was happening on a near daily basis. (And still appears to be happening to this semi-regular Holborn traveller in 2017.)
Whether or not TfL will now decide to roll out standing only escalators further remains to be seen. The 2015 report discusses the numerous complexities of making it work on a wider scale. For example, not every escalator would benefit from being standing-only - like the shorter ones at Canary Wharf. If a blanket rule was introduced, it could conceivably have the opposite effect on congestion. And if new rules are only applied to some escalators, then that creates a bit of a communications nightmare which makes it more difficult to enforce than a simple blanket rule of “always stand on the right”.
We’ve reached out to TfL to ask if they plan to implement standing only escalators full time.
James O'Malley is Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.
Update: TfL has gift in touch and offered the following statement
Mark Evers, Director of Customer Strategy for London Underground, said:
“We’re continually looking for ways to improve our services for our customers, and so we’re very pleased at the success of the escalator trial. At peak times, station congestion was notably lessened and capacity increased by 30 per cent. Although there are no current plans to trial this scheme more widely, initiatives to make customer journeys quicker and more comfortable are constantly being tested across the TfL network. As London’s population grows, developing potential solutions to reduce congestion will ensure that our customers continue to receive the best possible service.”
Featured image: (The excellent) Matt Brown on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.