diamond geezer

 Thursday, April 16, 2015

What the tube needs is wider escalators.

Existing escalators are wide enough for two streams of passenger traffic - one walking and one standing. Or at least that's the plan. Not everybody understands 'The Escalator Rule', especially visitors to our capital, which is why announcements are often made to "stand on the right and walk on the left". Elsewhere in the world escalators are only for standing on, and if you try to walk up the left you often get stuck. Indeed even escalators elsewhere in London, say in shopping malls, also tend to be for standing only. People step on at the bottom, on either side of the escalator, and get off at the top. Only on London's railways is there an expectation that one side of the escalator is for walking, because we're all in one hell of a rush, hence a rule has grown up that most people follow.

But not everybody. How annoying is it when you're trying to walk up the left hand side of an escalator only to find someone standing there because they didn't understand the rules? Sometimes it's OK because there's a gap on the right instead so you can still get by, possibly with a sharp intake of breath as you pass. Other times it's because they're in a family, or a group, or half a couple, and they thought they'd have a nice chat with the person next to them on the way up without considering the inconvenience this might cause. Children frequently end up on the left beside their parents, for hand-holding reasons, which'd be perfectly sensible if only there weren't a rule against it. Whatever, it should always be possible for people to stand only on the right, and it's irritating for the rest of us when they haven't done so.

And then there's luggage. Negotiating the Underground with a suitcase can be damned awkward at the best of times, given the narrowness of platforms and passages, and the number of people and steps. An escalator provides respite on your journey but also a challenge, namely how to step on and manoeuvre your baggage aboard at the same time. Often a suitcase begins its upward journey alongside its owner, before being repositioned onto the step in front or behind out of courtesy to passengers trying to walk past, but some people leave their suitcase beside them because they don't know any better. Or there's the extra wide suitcase, or indeed the pushchair, which takes up more than half the width of the escalator and which thus necessitates passers-by squeezing through the gap even if optimally placed.

So what the tube needs is wider escalators. The steps on escalators on the underground are always one metre wide. That's precisely 1000mm wide, a standard measurement introduced many decades ago to ensure consistency of experience and the interchangeability of parts. The average human is about 50cm wide at the shoulders, and generally narrower lower down, so a metre-wide escalator is about right for allowing two of us side-by-side. But many people now bulge somewhat at the waist, our nation being broader than it used to be, so sticking to half an escalator can sometimes be a tight squeeze. Often you have to twist your body slightly to the side to get past, or indeed rather more than slightly if the person (plus bags or rucksack) is particularly large.

What the tube needs is 50% wider escalators. A width of 150cm rather than 100cm would allow passage on the left no matter who or what was standing on the right. Lady with umpteen shopping bags - not a problem. Family with pushchair and small child - not a problem. Cluster of foreign students engrossed in chat - not a problem. Airport-bound gentleman with wheelie suitcase the size of a mountain - not a problem. If escalators were half as wide again, those of us who choose to walk up the left hand side would almost always be able to ascend unobstructed, so long as passengers knew to "stand on the right and walk on the left", that is.

And a 150%-width escalator would also allow the introduction of three lanes of traffic if required. One lane on the right for standing, as now, then a central lane for walking up, and then a fast lane on the left hand side for those really in a rush. How annoying is it when you're trying to walk up an escalator only to get stuck behind someone less fit or more dawdly, reduced to climbing at their pace when you could be going much faster. A third lane designed for overtaking would solve the "slow climber" issue outright. Indeed a wider escalator would essentially become a pedestrian motorway, with stationary traffic in the inside lane, steady climbers in the middle lane and speeding travellers in the outside lane. If it works so well on Britain's motorways, why shouldn't it work on the tube?

At busy times a wider escalator could be reclassified to allow two lanes of standing traffic and one of walking. Most people like to stand, hence the queues that sometimes grow at the bottom of an escalator because they refuse to take the plunge and walk up instead. And whilst some passengers are indeed physically incapable of climbing, it often being a long way to the top, others are simply unwilling to commit to so much physical exertion. It's a sad reflection of our increasingly lazy nation that the right of an escalator is generally preferred to the left. We should therefore capitulate to their needs and make more space for standing at the busiest times, so that those waiting at the foot of escalators would be able to board more quickly and the queues would hopefully fade away.

Obviously you can't simply replace today's 100cm escalators with a 150cm model, there isn't room. Nor could you replace two 100cm escalators with two 150cm models, there isn't room for that either. But three 100cm escalators could be replaced by two 150cm escalators, with all the associated benefits that would bring. Three existing 100cm escalators include three lanes for standing and three for walking, whereas two 150cm escalators could include four lanes for standing and two for walking, which would increase upward capacity at the busiest times. And if replacing more extensive banks of escalators, say the existing four at Holborn or Canary Wharf, the benefits would be even greater.

We'd need a public information campaign of course. Passengers would need to be educated as to what the three lanes on a wider escalator were for, perhaps "stand on the right, walk in the middle and overtake on the left". There'd also need to be agreed protocols for rush hour use as the centre lane switched from walking to standing, or perhaps this would simply happen organically as numbers increased. And we'd need more money. It'd cost a heck of a lot to rip out an existing escalator and replace it by a wider one, not to mention the disruption this would cause during the changeover period. But these are not insurmountable issues. Indeed if TfL can potentially fund a pipedream like the Garden Bridge, then all we have to do is scrap that and pump the money into an escalator widening programme instead.

The most practical approach, of course, would be to build wider escalators in the future instead of attempting to act retrospectively. Rather than attempting to match the mistakes of the past, the escalators at yet-to-be-built stations could be created with 21st century dimensions, to better suit our increasingly busy lifestyles and greater girth. We could make a start on the Northern line extension, for example, with a broader-than-normal escalators at Nine Elms and Battersea. The latter would be ideal for escalators with a width of 150cm, I think, given that the Power Station's clientele are bound to be encumbered with flapping shopping bags, pushchairs and extremely large suitcases.

What the tube needs is wider escalators. If only the Edwardians had realised.


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