For years now, the rule on London Underground's escalators has been this.
It's not a general rule elsewhere - you only have to ride an escalator in a suburban shopping mall or at a provincial railway station to see that. And it confuses tourists no end, as they stand willy-nilly wherever they like, or loll with their luggage blocking the wrong half of the step. But it is the rule on the tube, and TfL have put decades of effort into explaining and enforcing that the left hand side of an escalator be left clear for those wishing to walk. They announce it over the tannoy, they write it on blue signs positioned at regular intervals down each bank of escalators, and they've even got round to writing it in capital yellow letters on the vertical treads.
But this morning that rule is being deliberately systematically broken, at one specific station only, for a six month experimental period. Passengers at Holborn station are to be asked to change the habit of a lifetime and stand on either side of the escalator, be that left or right, in an attempt to increase the flow and reduce congestion. You're going to hate it, or love it, depending on whether you're somebody who always walks up an escalator or somebody who hates queueing at the bottom.
TfL ran a brief trial at Holborn last year, in the morning rush hour only, to help convince them that standing on both sides is best. Holborn has a particularly long escalator, rising 23½m to the ticket hall, beaten only by those at Leicester Square (24½m) and Angel (27½m). The height is enough to deter most people from walking up it, especially those who may already have panted up the deeper ascent from the Piccadilly line. So the vast majority of passengers ascending Holborn's main escalators stand, and only a few walk, which it turns out isn't a very efficient use of limited available space. Allowing people to stand on both sides in the trial boosted passenger flow by 30%, thereby preventing the daily build-up of crowds at the foot of the escalator, which is why the experiment is now being rolled out for a much longer period.
The only problem was that people hated it. They didn't see an egalitarian solution helping them to exit the station more quickly, they saw an infringement of civil liberties preventing them from walking as quickly as they'd like. You only have to listen to the tutting behind an ignorant tourist standing in the wrong place to know how much the escalator-walkers value the thirty seconds they shave off their daily commute. A considerable amount of cajoling was therefore required, not all of it successful, to try to make passengers break a rule they'd previously had drummed into them. Hence in the new trial starting today TfL are going to try considerably harder.
Peter McNaught, Operations Director at London Underground, said: 'It may not seem right that you can go quicker by standing still, but our experiments at Holborn have proved that it can be true. This new pilot will help us find out if we can influence customers to stand on both sides in the long term, using just signage and information.
As you can almost see in this photo taken at the weekend, a white box has appeared at the foot of the main escalator, upon which will be placed "a talking projection of a staff member". Projections are cheaper than real staff, and they smile all the time, plus they don't get bored saying the same thing over and over. A variety of messages will be tested, developed with the help of the behavioural science department at the London School of Economics, the most normal of which will be...
• Stand on both sides
• Stand on the left and the right
• Please don't walk on this escalator
The first of these is annoying, because you can't stand on both sides of an escalator, or rather you can but only by standing in the middle and blocking everyone. It's from the same grammatically deficient stable as the regular exhortation to "please use the full length of the platform", something that a crowd can do but not an individual passenger. The second is a little more explicitly collective, and the third potentially the best of all as it clearly conveys the point of the entire trial. But the LSE have also recorded some more oblique messages, and will be deploying these to see if nudging passenger behaviour works any better...
• Standing room only
• Standing? Outstanding!
• United we stand
The first of these isn't technically true, especially at less busy times of day, so rather misses the point. The second is the sort of thing you'd say to a child, so many commuters may it find deeply patronising. And the third only hints at the rationale behind the change (if we all slow down we'll all get out quicker), so may fail to get the message across. Indeed if I was forced to listen to this sort of thing emerging from a grinning artificial body every morning I might feel like giving them a thump... which is another reason that a projection is being used rather than an actual member of staff.
In further tactics, pairs of blue footprints have been stencilled onto the treads of the affected escalators as an additional hint that everybody's expected to stand. On certain other escalators at Holborn, for example those down to the Piccadilly line, only one pair of footprints has been used in the hope that commuters will realise this means 'here you only stand on the right'. I think the idea's too implicit to be effective, but it's all part of the experiment, so we'll see.
In another very recent change the blue signs up the escalator that used to read "Stand on the right" have been covered over by a new vinyl message that reads "Hold the handrail". "Hold the handrail" is TfL's new health and safety mantra of choice, and it's already been rolled out at several stations on signs, on posters and in announcements. It's a well-meaning campaign - escalators and staircases are the location of a high proportion of the Underground's annual casualty total. But there's still something a bit nanny state about urging everyone to hold the handrail all the time, especially if you're standing not walking, and who's to say what nasty bugs and viruses we could pick up from the handrail if everybody chose to hold it.
TfL might be onto a behavioural winner at Holborn if they can keep the message simple. The big problem with what they've chosen to do is that the message isn't going to be simple, because different escalators will be treated in different ways. Having recognised that some commuters will always insist on walking no matter what they're told, one of the up escalators is to remain "walk on the left, stand on the right" for the duration of the trial. And the complication is that precisely which escalator this is will change during the day. Holborn's bank of four escalators provides useful flexibility to match passenger flow, so in the morning peak three of the four escalators are designated 'up' (to help evacuate commuters arriving into Central London) while in the evening peak it's only two. At other times of day whether it's two or three varies, or sometimes one escalator is turned off to save on wear and tear, which is likely to sow the seeds of confusion even further unless explanatory notices are particularly well displayed.
Let's take each of the four escalators in turn, from left to right in the photo below, to help explain.
Escalator 1 (up): From today, this escalator will be standing only at all times. If only it were this simple. Escalator 2 (up): This escalator will be standing only at peak times, when three upward escalators are in operation, but will be the "walking up" escalator at other times of day (for example the evening peak). Escalator 3 (up/down): This escalator changes direction according to what time of day it is. If it's running upwards, then it's the designated "walking up" escalator. If it's running downwards then you can walk down, because you can always walk down the escalators at Holborn, they're not changing that. Escalator 4 (down): This escalator only ever goes down, and retains the "walk on the left, stand on the right" rule.
Escalators 1, 3 and 4 have relatively simple rules - you always stand on escalator 1 and you don't have to stand on escalators 3 and 4. The problem is with escalator 2, where you might be allowed to walk or you might not, and good luck in working out which. You can probably imagine the frustration when somebody fails to work it out correctly and accidentally stands on the one escalator you're still supposed to be able to walk up. At present this happens only infrequently, even with tourists, because the rule is the same everywhere on the tube, so an "excuse me" generally nudges interlopers out of the way. But at Holborn the displacement approach is now less likely to work, even when the person standing on the left is in the wrong, because it's going to be much harder to be certain what 'wrong' actually is.
Another thing that's going to be frustrating, if you're an escalator-walker, is the imposition of the "stand on both sides" rule at all times of the day. At 3pm on a Wednesday or 10pm on a Sunday Holborn station isn't exactly bursting, hence there's plenty of room on the escalators to allow both standing and walking. Indeed even at 8am on a weekday the crowds are manageable enough for the existing arrangements to be perfectly sufficient, the change is only going to be especially useful for the hour or so between half eight and half nine. But to make the new rule stick TfL needs to impose it at all times, even when totally not necessary, so that it becomes a learned behaviour rather than a temporary change.
As a confirmed escalator walker myself, who always travels into the station outside the daily crush, the Holborn experiment is only going to piss me off. I embrace the 23½m climb, it's excellent exercise, and I appreciate being able to get out of the station much quicker than everyone else. But I recognise how few other passengers appear to think the same. According to a recent survey over half of tube passengers said they'd refuse to follow the new instructions if TfL rolled them out across the network. But at Holborn, with its mega-escalators, the reality is that barely 10-20% walk up and everyone else glides patiently because they don't have the urge to climb.
The sacrifice of the few is required to benefit the many. And anyway, the few will always have one escalator to walk up, which might just keep everybody happy. If TfL were feeling less accommodating they could have insisted that all the 'up' escalators would be standing only, it would certainly make for a much simpler rule which passengers might then be able to follow more clearly. As it is, all you need to remember at Holborn for the next six months is this...
• When you arrive at the bottom of the main escalators, you can always walk up the left-most 'up' escalator.
• You can't walk up the other 'up' escalators, you have to stand.
• You can always walk down.
If the trial's successful, it might become permanent. It could also spread to other stations with escalators over 18½m tall (which is the over-accurate number a research paper in 2002 came up with), a decision which might affect Angel, Green Park, Highgate, Hyde Park Corner, Kentish Town, Leicester Square, London Bridge and Marylebone. But implementation at stations with only one 'up' escalator might prove more problematic, there being no spare alternative for those who prefer to walk. And ultimately it could lead to the wholesale collapse of the "walk on the left, stand on the right" rule across the entire network, in the interests of simplicity, as the need to increase capacity trumps personal freedom. Let's hope not. Let's just hope that today's change helps solve an hour or so of daily congestion at a station with a genuine problem, and leave it at that.
Morning rush hour update:
• It isn't working.
• There are no obvious signs at the foot of the escalators other than the grinning projected lady.
• The grinning projected lady repeats a variety of phrases, including "Hold the handrail" and "Please stand on both sides of this escalator" (so isn't necessarily saying something informative when you arrive)
• The phrase "Please stand on both sides of this escalator" isn't helpful when spoken by someone standing inbetween two escalators.
• The blue signs up the edge of the right hand escalator are now electronic, so are being used to display a variety of short messages, including "Hold the handrail", "Stand on both sides" and simply "Stand".
• It would be clearer if the blue electronic signs included arrows, to indicate which of the two escalators to either side they apply to.
• There was no sign on the escalator you were still allowed to walk up to indicate it was the escalator you were still allowed to walk up.
• People were still walking up all three 'up' escalators.
• It isn't working.
Evening rush hour update:
• It turns out there are signs stuck to the floor at the foot of the escalators, but I couldn't see them because people were standing on them.
• The sign at the foot of Escalator 3 says "Stand on the left Walk on the right".
• The signs at the foot of Escalators 1 and 2 both say "Stand on both sides of this escalator".
• In the evening peak, with only two 'up' escalators, no attempt has been made to suggest that one of them can be walked up.
• It wasn't possible to hear what the grinning projected lady was saying, because the concourse was too noisy.
• The messages on the blue electronic signs up the edge of the right-hand escalator include several ridiculously nanny-ish safety messages, including one about watching out for the brushes, as if Mary Poppins did the programming.
• Both 'up' escalators were almost empty when I passed by (because passengers arrive in waves from below).
• In two visits I haven't seen anybody standing on the left of an escalator.
Important update (based on latest press release):
• It appears TfL have changed their mind about always having one escalator to walk up.
What they said in March: One of four escalators will be 'standing only' at all times for six months with another standing only at some times of day What they're saying now: Customers will be asked to stand on both sides of two 'up' escalators for six months.
• To simplify procedures, it appears that escalators will now be either 'walking allowed' or 'standing only', not potentially either.
• Both escalator 1 and escalator 2 will now always be for standing on both sides.
• If Escalator 3 is running upwards, then you'll be able to walk up it. But if Escalator 3 is running downwards, then there won't be a designated 'walking up' escalator.
• TfL's claim that "The third 'up' escalator is also available for people who still want to walk up" appears to be a lie, at certain times of the day.
• Bastards. (but that's OK, for now, because people are still walking anyway)