Why You Should Always Stand, Not Pass Others, on the Escalator

It's not just rude to pass on the escalator; it's inefficient. renaissancechambara/Wikimedia Commons

There are at least two types of escalator riders: walkers and standers. Walkers think that escalators exist to quicken their pace, while standers typically see them as moving rest stops.

Both walkers and standers therefore run the risk of operating under two differing rules of etiquette, each accusing the other of being impolite. Walkers see standers as obstructions that prevent them from moving briskly along, while standers see walkers as impatient passersby who rudely cut them off.

The truth is, though, that the general purpose of escalators is to direct and coordinate the flow of pedestrian traffic, not to speed us up or to enable laziness or inactivity. So the question of whether it's the walkers or the standers who are in the right actually has an objective measure; it's not just a subjective matter of preference. Science can weigh in.

Which escalator strategy, then, is more efficient at moving pedestrian traffic? Should you walk or stand?

The simple answer: you should stand.

To understand why, consider the numbers. First of all, we know that there are far more standers than walkers. For instance, a 2013 study showed that 74.9 percent of pedestrians choose to stand on the escalator instead of walk, reports The Conversation. This is important because we need to consider the way that most people are choosing to move naturally when weighing efficiency. Walkers might move faster, but they're also causing more relative disruption.

Moreover, studies have also shown that someone standing needs, on average, a little over three square feet of space to feel psychologically comfortable, whereas a walking pedestrian needs more than eight square feet.

What this means is that, from a strictly psychological point of view, an escalator can comfortably hold more than twice the number of standing pedestrians as walking pedestrians.

Finally, planners for London's public mass transit system recently found that by instituting a "standing only" policy on their escalators, they were able to reap a 27 percent increase in the hourly capacity, reports The Guardian. These results were compared against a dual model where both walkers and standers were given lanes in which to move according to their preference.

This might sound counterintuitive for the very reason that walkers can move faster on the escalator than standers, and so allowing at least some people to walk might seem to make sense. But of course, not all walkers move at the same pace, and this inconsistency causes traffic to build up in chaotic ways, which slows things down for everyone. In other words, even the walkers get to their destination faster by standing.

Walkers do have one reprieve, however. When you have the escalator alone to yourself, and there's no one to pass or to pass you, walking is certainly more efficient in this case. Standers are only exhibiting the most efficient strategy in crowded spaces.

When others are present, though, it's best for everyone if you just stand and be patient.