I first visited London when I was 12 years old, traveling down from my native Northeast England on an overnight bus. The trip was a rite of passage in our family, as my mother had taken my older brother to the Big Smoke when he was the same age.
Other than the bustling stores along Oxford Road and the chaos of Piccadilly Circus, what left a lasting impression on me were the huge escalators at London Underground stations – not only because of their extraordinary length, but also for the big, yellow warning that was painted on their grinding mechanical steps. KEEP TO THE RIGHT, it read, leaving no room for argument. This was to allow commuters in a hurry (or those who just don’t like standing) to walk up the left-hand side.
As men in pinstripe suits zoomed passed, one eye on their broadsheet newspaper, I remember thinking that I couldn’t wait until I was important enough to be in such a rush.
Although that desire quickly disappeared when I reached my teens, my belief in the division of territory on escalators stuck fast: Stand on the right, walk on the left – be it at a subway station, shopping mall, or those moving sidewalks at airports.
On several occasions over the past nine years I’ve even attempted to enforce my “keep right” policy on the Beijing Subway – which, to be fair, has no such rule – with the use of passive-aggressive tutting and the occasional “nihao” to get people blocking the escalator (known as “escalumps” by some, I’m told) to make way. Suffice to say, this has not been the best way to make friends and influence people.
Yet it turns out it could actually be me who needs re-educating on escalator etiquette after all.
For a start, I’m definitely in the minority. Only 25 percent of people walk on escalators rather than stand, even during rush hours, according to a 2011 study by the University of Greenwich based on data collected in Barcelona, Shanghai and London.
Second, it can actually be more efficient if everyone stands. A three-week trial at one of London Underground’s busiest stations in 2015 showed that getting rid of the “walk left” policy allows another 30 people to board an escalator every minute, which helps ease congestion.
Rail and subway operators in Hong Kong and Japan have also run campaigns in recent years to stop commuters from walking up and down escalators due to an increase in injuries.
In the United States alone, escalator accidents kill about 30 people a year and injure about 17,000, according to a 2013 report by the Center for Construction Research and Training. Workers involved in fitting or repairing escalators account for half, while most other casualties are caused by falling. Transportation safety experts say such accidents would happen far less if people just stood still.
After knowing all that, maybe I’ll just use the stairs instead.