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Why TfL is wrong about the escalators

London Underground is to stop people from walking up the main escalators at Holborn, one of the capital's busiest stations. While today you can walk up the left hand side exercising your heart, legs and lungs, from 18 April you too will be required to stand still.

When I first read about this I thought I'd misunderstood. In Moscow you can earn a free ride by doing sit-ups in front of a ticket machine. In Stockholm they turned a staircase into a piano to reduce crowding and promote exercise. Surely no modern transport network could possibly be actively encouraging inertia?

But that is exactly what is happening. While public health authorities across the globe are desperately seeking ways of rebuilding exercise into our increasingly sclerotic lives, London Underground, backed by Transport for London (TFL), is asking us all to "move less".

An early pilot of the scheme in November last year did not prove popular. Staff equipped with loud hailers were placed at the bottom of the escalators barking orders that everyone stand still. When that proved ineffective, plain-clothed ringers  – "great big lift engineers" – were called-in to stand on the left to block the walkers. Why plain-clothed? Because uniformed personnel might be "assaulted", explained Celia Harrison, a TFL customer strategy analyst.

Holborn tube escalator

There is an explanation. London Underground is concerned about congestion at Holborn and other stations. Since fewer people walk than stand on its escalators, executives reasoned they could get "as many as 30% more customers" up and out by hobbling the walkers and allowing people to stand on both sides.

"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", said Peter McNaught, Operations Director at London Underground.

I don't come at this as an independent. I have a vested interest in promoting all forms of physical activity and stair use in particular. Nevertheless, if you consider the initiative in detail, you may conclude that 'Operation Escalump' needs re-thinking.

You will also discover that TFL's characterisation of the scheme - as a new and ground-breaking experiment in behavioural economics - is wide of the mark. You only need to spend five minutes on Google to discover that staff at the station have been trying to get people stand on both sides of the escalators for over a decade. It has never worked and, say the experts, it is never likely to.

Bad science

Consider the specific problem at Holborn. The station has four long escalators with a vertical height of 24 meters taking people from the Central Line concourse to street level. At rush-hours things can get bunged up to the extent that station staff have to stop people entering the station. 

A 2002 study supported by London Underground and conducted by Paul Davis of the London School of Economics and Goutam Dutta of the Indian Institute of Management, looked specifically at escalator capacity at Holborn and other stations. It found that:

  • The standing only side of an escalator can carry a maximum of 54 people per minute
  • The walking side can carry a maximum of 66 people per minute
  • The overall theoretical capacity of an escalator where one side stands and one sides walks was therefore about 120 people per minute

So how do you maximise capacity? There are three options:

(A) Ensure people utilise the walking side of the escalator at rush hours, giving an output of 120 people per minute

(B) Encourage walking on both sides of the escalator increasing capacity to 132 per minute, or

(C) Make people stand on both sides giving a maximum capacity of 108 people per minute.

If I were worried about congestion at Holborn, I know where I would start. But not apparently London Underground, not now and not 14 years ago when they were first told by the expert authors of the 2002 study that getting people to stand on both sides was a bad idea.

The study states: "One station, Holborn, does have a policy of asking passengers to stand on both sides of the up escalators once they get busy... The great majority of people paid no attention to the customer announcement...on reaching the escalator they wished to minimise their own travelling time and this was best done by walking rather than standing.

"To move towards a policy of standing on both sides would be unpopular and would penalise those who are most rushed and those who place most value on their time…No attempt should be made to persuade passengers to stand on both sides of an escalator".

Standing in the way of progress

So here we are back in 2016, the age of the Fitbit and 10,000 steps a day. A decade in which science has proved beyond reasonable doubt that regular daily physical activity is vital in warding off a myriad of nasties including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and several cancers. And yet London Underground is still pursuing the failed 'Option C'.

Why not try the 'move more' options A and B? Surely London Underground and TFL have insisted that tests be run to encourage walking on one or both sides of its escalators before sanctioning a standing only policy?

Apparently not. A recent report in the Guardian quotes TFL as saying the 2002 study found that only "40% would contemplate" climbing the 25m escalators at Holborn and that therefore encouraging people to walk was a non-starter.

But that’s not what the 2002 study says. It did not ask people about their willingness to walk but instead measured the numbers who actually walked and found that 40% of all passengers walked. And that was 15 years ago. It must be reasonable to assume today – when nearly half of all commuting London road users are now cyclists and the risks of inactivity are much better understood – that the walking figure is already higher and could be made considerably higher still with a bit of gentle nudging.

Active design

There is still time for London Underground to change its mind but my guess is that the "move less" initiative is going ahead come 18 April whatever the evidence.

London Underground and TFL have yet to enthusiastically embrace the principles of active design despite government encouragement to do so. For instance, more than 30 London Underground stations with lifts also have fixed stairs. But despite lengthy rush hour waits for the lifts in almost all of them, London Underground persists in placing signs at the stair entrances discouraging their use.

It's as if stair climbing were some sort extreme sport akin to base-jumping. "This stairway has 111 steps. Use only in an emergency", says a typical example at Elephant & Castle.

Elephant and Castle tube stairs warning sign

Saddest of all however is the opportunity loss. A large scale Harvard study found that climbing just eight flights of stairs a day (about the equivalent of those stairs at the Elephant and Castle) lowers average early mortality risk by 33%, while just seven minutes stair climbing a day has been calculated to halve the risk of heart attack over 10 years. 

If nothing else, London Underground might consider a study published only last month in the journal Neurobiology of Aging. It found a direct correlation between the speed at which our brains decline and the incidence of stair climbing. The researchers found that brain age improves by 0.58 years in individuals who climb at least one additional flight of stairs a day.

That’s exactly the equivalent of a single daily ascent of those escalators at Holborn.

To move towards a policy of standing on both sides would be unpopular and would penalise those those who place most value on their time

Expert study, 2002


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