by Brian on January 15, 2004

A while ago Slate had a long, and amusing, discussion of why people stand on escalators but walk up stairs. (I’m out of net range right now or I’d find a link.) Here’s a slightly tougher question. Why do people stand on escalators but walk on moving walkways?



dsquared 01.15.04 at 4:23 pm

Because it’s more tiring to climb stairs than walk along the flat …


dsquared 01.15.04 at 4:24 pm

Here’s your link, btw.


John James 01.15.04 at 4:33 pm

because it is more fun


Jeremy Osner 01.15.04 at 4:41 pm

Here in New York a largish proportion of people (more than half I would think based on casual observation) walk up escalators; less but still a lot walk down as well. I get a kick out of supporting myself on the handrails of moving walkways, so my feet are not touching the ground but I’m moving forward — it’s a little like flying except not at all.


Ben Ryan 01.15.04 at 4:43 pm

The only reason I don’t walk up escalators is all the silly buggers in front of me standing in the way. Fortunately, moving sidewalks are not as heavily used and don’t often present such a problem.

More seriously, I imagine it’s partly because of the fear of escalators we all had pressed into us as kids (“Don’t fool around on that or you’ll get sucked in and die!”). Rather than jump on and start hiking like they were moving stairs, we keep it simple, safe and stationary.


Rv. Agnos 01.15.04 at 4:49 pm

Although interesting in theory, the actual answer is quite obvious.

The answer has to be that escalators, despite physically resembling “stairs that move”, are in fact significantly different in structure.

Think about when the escalator is broken, and you need to walk up it. It is uncomfortable, because the steps are farther apart than on a stairway (about a foot rather than six inches) — useful for keeping stationary people separated, but not for easy climbing.

Given a set of stairs set next to a stopped escalator, everyone would take the stairs.

It is not significantly more difficult to walk on a moving walkway.


David Glynn 01.15.04 at 5:02 pm

I seem to remember that on the escalators leading to the Metro in DC people not walking kept to the right, and walkers were able to pass on the left. Probably one in four were walkers.

I walk up escalators, and was pleasantly surprised at how often this human version of “slower cars keep left” thing worked on the Metro escalators. The on-walkers were consistently to the right, leaving room for walkers to pass.


tcb 01.15.04 at 5:05 pm

I usually want to get where I’m going in the most expedient possible manner. I’ll run up (or down) a moving escalator if there’s room. I briskly walk or run on moving sidewalks if there’s room. If there’s no room I’d rather run up ordinary steps than wait for a packed escalator to transport me.

As for the inconvenient size of the escalator steps, I’m 6’3″ so I’m actually more comfortable on the widely spaced steps (one of the few things ergonomically designed for tall people, if unintentionally).

As you may have guessed, I spend a fair amount of time at airports trying to make connecting flights! Escalators at the mall and escalators at the airport have significantly differing user habits.


ucblockhead 01.15.04 at 5:06 pm

In the SF Bay Area public transit systems, at least half, probably more, walk up and down the escalators, and a simple protocol of stand right, walk left has arisen to accomodate both practices. Sometimes you get someone standing left (usually a tourist), an act that causes much consternation on the part of commuters.

So I don’t know…I walk up escalators. Funny thing is, as someone who is taller than average, the higher steps on an escalator are a bit more comfortable than a lot of stairs.


Brooklyn Sword Style 01.15.04 at 5:06 pm

I observed this same behavior on the Tube in London. VERY different from New York.


Katherine 01.15.04 at 5:11 pm

Because (in the U.S. at least)moving walkways are often very slow, and it makes you feel ridiculous to stand on one when people are walking by twice as fast?

Also: you can wheel your luggage on one and not the other.

But people do walk up escalators and stand still on moving walkways sometimes, of course.


Mats 01.15.04 at 5:31 pm

I would, in contrast to Garrison and Landsburg rather take on a relative utility analysis. As dsquared points out, it’s heavy to walk up the escalator. Hence walking up makes you look worse off to the people that affords to stand. As Katherine points out, the moving walkway is very slow, so standing there makes you look much less efficient than those who walk.


Chris Brooke 01.15.04 at 5:39 pm

A short while ago the National Building Museum issued a call for papers for its catalogue, “Up, Down, Across: Elevators, Escalators, and Moving Sidewalks,” wanting authors to write on the “social, cultural, and/or architectural impact of these human conveyance devices”. So this source, when published, might provide some leads for a properly scientific investigation of the topic.


Ophelia Benson 01.15.04 at 5:42 pm

Yes, I was going to say the same thing about London. There the etiquette is very much not to impede people who do want to walk. (I mean, how much thought does that take? Some people actually want to run, because guess what, they might be late, they might be running for a train! These things happen in public transport facilities.) It always annoys the hell out of me that most Americans stand there like stunned oxen, that you have to actually say ‘Excuse me’ if you want to walk and they’re in the way. And then they look at you as if you’re stark staring mad, just because you don’t want to waste a minute or two standing like a stunned ox on an escalator.

And how many of these people are exactly the same people who spend good money on health clubs in order to exercise on machines? Hmm? Yet confronted by an escalator, they stand perfectly still as if posing for a portrait.

It’s odd.


ionfish 01.15.04 at 5:43 pm

Escalator Etiquette – stand on the right! That way the people who do walk up (or down, as the case may be) can get by. If only this rule were universal!


Ophelia Benson 01.15.04 at 6:19 pm

Well I do my best. I have an on-going campaign to teach my fellow Murkans, one Murkan at a time, by civilly but firmly (actually if truth be told sometimes rather brusquely) saying ‘Excuse me’ and walking up or down. I figure they will eventually figure it out. I haven’t made much headway so far though. Still a lot of stunned oxen around.


mike d 01.15.04 at 7:32 pm

I wonder what differentiates people who walk vs people who ride escalators, and whether that difference correlates to the walk/ride divide on walkways…


Jon H 01.15.04 at 7:51 pm

Moving sidewalks are made of rubber, so they’re bouncy and neat to walk on.

Here’s a poser: there are escalators that are more like inclined moving sidewalks, and use a continuous rubber surface instead of jointed metal treads. I suspect people will tend to walk on such escalators, where they might not on a regular escalator.


Carl 01.15.04 at 9:28 pm

“Stand Right Walk Left” is indeed the commandment on DC’s Metro, and woe be to the tourists who screw it up.

The proportion of walkers to standers is much higher during rush hour, particularly in those stations where you switch between lines (i.e. you get off the Red Line, then bust ass down to the lower platform in hopes that your Orange Line train is there and you don’t miss it).


Matt Weiner 01.15.04 at 9:49 pm

In the UK, does one Stand Right Walk Left or vice versa? I always figured that SRWL in the U.S. derived from the fact that you drive on the right and pass on the left*, and I’m curious whether it’s reversed in a country in which you drive on the other side.

*That is–if there’s more than one lane, the lanes closest to the center are the passing lanes. This is more or less theoretical, depending on where you are.


Errol 01.15.04 at 10:15 pm

In the UK, does one Stand Right Walk Left or vice versa?

The London Underground is SRWL. IME, stations are also normally organised so you keep left (eg from the street, down escalators are generally on the left). This makes things easier if you are in a hurry, just keep left all the time. There are exceptions to this.

Non-transport escalators generally aren’t as wide, so SRWL isn’t practical.


cafl 01.16.04 at 1:26 am

I seldom encounter escalators or moving walkways except at airports, and it seems to me that moving walkways are much wider. Thus it is easy to SRWL on a moving walkway (especially with luggage or packages) and very difficult on escalators. Often I start to climb/descend on an escalator but catch sight of a person standing still with luggage ahead…what’s the point of moving further, if I’ll simply be blocked?


reuben 01.16.04 at 10:54 am

Re tourists standing right while locals are trying to walk left: I’m now a Londoner, but still have a recognisably southern American accent. So when I politely ask non-London British tourists to get out of the way (not by saying “excuse me”, of course, but by saying “sorry”), I often get a sharp look, as if to say, “Don’t you tell me what to do in my own country, Yankee boy.” (Of course, that’s when I tell them that under New Labour they’re legally required to follow my orders.)


reuben 01.16.04 at 10:56 am

Um, that should read “tourists standing left while locals are trying to walk left”


clew 01.20.04 at 12:38 am

I find that saying “excuse me, on your left” has the best effect on chiral tourists.

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