We should be kinder to escalators. The District of Columbia learned this Wednesday.
Talking to D.C.’s NBC affiliate station one day before the D.C. Metro board approved fare hikes and service cuts to begin in July, the head of Washington’s Metro system said that by walking on the left side of the escalator and standing on the right—a mainstay of subway decorum!—people are actually harming the moving stairway. “These are very sensitive pieces of equipment,” Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said as a new escalator at the Bethesda station was unveiled.
Even as he said it, he knew the futility of his cause. “We prefer that they stand as they move up the escalator, but also we know that people will do what they want to do.” It’s true. And to well-behaved Washington commuters, the Metro chief’s comments amounted to heresy:
@TaylorLorenz the strict escalator etiquette is one of DC's most redeeming qualities!— Tim Donnelly (@timdonnelly) March 22, 2017
Wiedefeld isn’t the first to try to upset the escalator order. In 2016, for three weeks one of the busiest London Underground stations enraged Londoners by forcing them to stand on both sides of the escalator during rush times. In these high-congestion cases, the standing-only method did in fact speed up the line, because it allowed more people on an escalator at one time.
As for Wiedefeld’s concerns over the escalator’s fragility, could he be wrong on the merits? A spokesperson for the escalator company Otis also told the NBC affiliate that walking on an escalator shouldn’t damage it. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system also asked people in January to avoid walking on the escalators, claiming the unevenly distributed weight causes the escalators to deteriorate more quickly and citing a Wall Street Journal article that talked about Chinese subways fighting escalator chaos. But the officials in that story, too, were not unanimous in their concerns, and the general secretary of the China Elevator Association (its interests include escalators, too, the article explains) said that escalators could be built to withstand the wear, and that the real worry should actually be about the dangers of people tripping.
If Wiedefeld’s concerns for our sensitive escalators is overblown, at least it might distract from ever-unpopular fare hikes and service cuts—the latest development in a series of troubles for the D.C. Metro, which is currently experiencing a maddening but much-needed maintenance effort that blesses travelers with surges and line shut-downs. But while riders might be willing to suffer the indignity of circuitous routes and exasperating waits, they might not be able to stomach such a dramatic break with escalator convention.