Should You Stand or Walk on the Escalator?

Standing to the right on escalators the London Underground is as British as the queen. elminium/flickr

I have strong feelings about escalators, not least among them the value of keeping a lane open for those who want to walk up instead of standing still. It's quicker, I get a little exercise (or a lot, depending on how tall the stairs are) and I get to stretch my legs after barely moving for 15 minutes on a crowded train. Many a time I have side-eyed people who stand on the side reserved for walkers, or, worse, put their rolling luggage there instead of in front of them. Since I'm almost always a pedestrian, this sort of behavior is the closest I get to road rage.

But it turns out I'm the one who should be the one getting the side-eye because I'm making the whole journey inefficient.

Wait, come again? If there's one thing I dislike more than not being able to walk up an escalator, it's making things inefficient through my own behavior. So what am I and my other comrades-in-walking doing wrong?

Timing and long lines

MARTA's Peachtree Center Station in Atlanta
The escalators at MARTA's Peachtree Center Station in Atlanta are reportedly the longest in the Southeast United States. Vampiress144/Wikimedia Commons

The inefficient part I actually get — sort of. I know walkers are a smaller segment of the escalator-using population — only about 25 percent of people walk up them, according to a 2011 University of Greewnwich study — so setting aside half the escalator's real estate for a quarter of the users doesn't make a great deal of sense. This is especially true for subway escalators that make very long journeys to and from the platforms where it seems likely that less than 25 percent of people are willing to make the hike. (I'm looking at you, MARTA's Peachtree Center Station, and your 120-foot-deep presence underneath Atlanta.)

What I can attest to in my own experience — and part of the reason I tended to walk up even Peachtree Center's seemingly endless escalators — is that the line to get to the standing side was always pretty long, creating a bottleneck of people trying to use one half of an escalator at time when a sizable number of people had just spilled out of a train and were trying to get to the office. Gates get clogged as people wait to get onto the moving staircase, and people end up standing in a long line to just stand on some stairs.

Back at the end of 2015, the Transport for London (TfL) — the agency that oversees public transit in the city and cautions everyone to mind the gap — decided to disrupt the natural order of things for three weeks and instructed hurried London commuters going up and out of Holborn Tube Station (about a 77-foot journey) if they could stand on both sides of escalator. As this Guardian article about the experiment points out, this is a huge violation of British social norms, and the Brits do really love their social norms. Knowing that, TfL planted folks in the walking path on the left and asked any couples in the queue to stand next to each other and hold hands, all the better to thwart walkers.

The whole experiment proved two things. First, commuters were not happy with the new process, but after three weeks, they grew a bit "docile." Second, it was much, much more efficient for people to stand side-by-side up the escalator. In fact, an escalator that normally carried 12,745 people up to the street between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. brought up 16,220 in the same hour with people standing side-by-side.

That is almost 3,500 more people in an hour who got out from underneath London and on their way to their destination sooner than they would have with the split-use escalator.

Another alternative

Walking up the escalator
If standing two-by-two up an escalator is efficient, wouldn't walking two-by-two be even more efficient? Well yes, but consider the people who can't walk up an escalator. Essential Image/Shutterstock

Of course, if two lanes for standing is more efficient, wouldn't two lanes for walking be even more efficient?

The answer to this obvious rhetorical question is yes, probably. In fact, a 2002 study conducted by researchers from the London School of Economics and the Indian Institute of Management broke it down like this, using a theoretical escalator:

  • The standing-only side carries a maximum of 54 people a minute.
  • The walking-only side propels a maximum of 66 people a minute.

That's only 120 people a minute. If you make both sides walk, however, 132 people are up, up and away to the street. Seems like a win for the walkers and for overall fitness. After all, we live in an age where most everyone's cellphone is counting their steps for them, so why not encourage walking up the escalator instead of standing still?

And here my well-honed side-eye must return, and this time for the study. One issue with a theoretical escalator is that it assumes a rate of walking speed, and as a walker, I can attest that not everyone walks at the same pace up the stairs. A second issue is that not everyone that can use an escalator can walk up one. These folks may be senior citizens, people with injuries or those carrying bulky packages.

I'm convinced by the value of standing based on the TfL's experiment, especially as cities try to encourage more people to take public transit, and that means more congested transit stations. Standing to get back onto the street seems like the best way to alleviate that issue.

That being said, I think I'll just take the actual stairs. After all, it'll mean one less person waiting in line to get on the escalator, and that seems pretty efficient, too.