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The things we do: What happened when the London Underground challenged social norms

Roxanne Bauer's picture

London  Underground stationGlobally, 157 cities around the world now have a metro system in operation.  These underground trains shuttle people back and forth from work, make weekend escapes possible, and allow tourists to get around without the hassle of human communication. 

The sheer number of people using metro systems has inspired quite a few rules of etiquette. In Japan it’s considered polite to switch your phone to “Manner Mode” (also known as “silent” mode) when using the metro so that other passengers aren’t subjected to ringtones as they travel. Eating durian, considered the world’s smelliest fruit, is not permitted on Singapore’s MRT, and “No durian” signs have been posted around the network. It’s also considered bad manners to sit in priority seats in Seoul subway cars at any time, regardless of whether there’s anyone around who needs them. 

But perhaps the stickiest, most sincerely held rule of etiquette is that when using an escalator to enter or exit a metro station, one should stand on the right and walk on the left. This way, those who want to climb the stairs can do so on the left, without having the say “excuse me” every 5 seconds.  This rule is especially important to follow at rush hour if you want to avoid grumpy remarks.  Those who have forgotten to follow it can probably speak to how sanctimonious some people feel about it.

On 4 December last year, the London Underground carried 4,821,000 passengers— setting a new record for a single day. However, something else was also afoot that day.

On that particular Friday, 11,000 passengers got off at Holborn Station between 8.30 and 9.30am and faced an unusually upsetting provocation. As they turned into the concourse and looked up to the station’s escalators, they saw something truly horrifying: dozens of people were standing on the left.

This was part of a three-week trial in which commuters were asked to stand rather than walk on the left side of escalators to see if it could cut queues.

The idea came after Len Lau, Vauxhall area manager, went to Hong Kong on holiday. Lau noticed that passengers on that city’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) were standing calmly on both sides of the escalator and, it seemed, travelling more efficiently and safely as a result. Upon his return, he wrote a report, which prompted Celia Harrison, a Transport for London (TfL) customer strategy analyst, and her colleagues to wonder whether the same effect would apply at a London station such as Holborn.  

Holburn StationThe theory, may be counterintuitive, but it is also compelling. It may make sense to reserve the left side for people in a rush at stations relatively close to the surface.  At these stations, the escalators rides are not long and many people want to climb the short distance up to the street.  However, at stations deeper underground, the escalators can be quite long.  At these stations, only a small number of people are likely to be willing to climb the entire length of the ride. A 2002 study of escalator capacity on the Underground found that on machines, like Holborn, with a vertical height of 24 meters, only 40% of passengers would even think about it.

Paul Stoneman, one of Harrison’s colleagues, did some initial calculations. In theory, he estimated that having people stand on both sides would allow 31 more passengers to get on to the escalator each minute – an increase of 28%. Holborn seemed like the perfect test case, not only for the steepness of its escalators, but also for its rush-hour stampede. 

In order to make their plan work, they had to be ingenious – and persuasive. Originally, they thought enforcement might be a good idea. They envisioned people in uniform standing on the left, so that people couldn’t walk past them, but concerns about possible assaults were raised. So they decided to simply encourage commuters to stand on the left.  TfL staff members stood at the bottom of the escalators with loudhailers (megaphones) asked commuters, as cheerfully as possible, if they would mind standing on both sides. Plain-clothes staff members were sent up the escalators to block the way for others and create a new sort of social pressure, and couples were asked to hold hands across the escalator to thwart those who wanted to zig zag through the crowd.

Reactions were intense. During the three weeks of the Holborn trial, those who disapproved of the idea voiced their opinions. “This is a charter for the lame and lazy!” said one. “I know how to use a bloody escalator!” said another. The pilot was “terrible”, “loopy,” “crap”, “ridiculous”, and a “very bad idea”; in a one-hour session, 18 people called it “stupid”. One man, determined to stride to the top come what may, pushed a child to one side. “Can’t you let us walk if we want to?” asked another.  

Nevertheless, over time, with constant attention from staff and three weeks of practice, they eventually became a little more docile. They followed the new regime, satisfying themselves, as a follow up report states, with a “great deal of non-verbal communication in the form of head-shaking”.

If the stand-on-the-left experiment is to be adopted permanently at Holborn, and potentially extended to other similar stations, it will have to go through more testing and analysis. Customer feedback has already led the team to conclude that it would be wise to keep at least one escalator running conventionally.  But the preliminary evidence is clear: despite the clear annoyance of some people, Lau was right. Through their own observations and the data they gathered, Harrison and her team found strong evidence to back the idea that standing on both sides of the escalator is a more effective way to move people. An escalator that carried 12,745 customers between 8.30 and 9.30am in a normal week, for example, carried 16,220 when it was designated standing only. That actually exceeded Stoneman’s calculations.

These results, you might think, would be enough to see the model introduced at any station where the escalator was sufficiently steep to discourage people from walking up, but commuters still present a challenge. The week following the trial they immediately went back to normal. 

Harrison and her colleagues are not daunted, though, and another trial is under discussion. The next one, if it happens, will focus on one escalator alone and will look into whether customers can be persuaded to stand without staff monitoring them with loudhailers. The handrail and tread of the escalator will be a different color, and firmly planted pairs of feet will decorate the left of the steps. In lieu of actual people, a hologram customer service operative will remind people to stand on both sides.

The question of exactly what the hologram should say was the object of discussion.  Some argued for an appeal to altruism, but then it was pointed out that in the run-up to the Olympics, when everyone was worried that the Tube would be hopelessly overcrowded, the team in charge of encouraging people to take alternative routes had the opposite insight: asking commuters to take an alternative route because it was good for the city was less successful than saying it was beneficial to the commuters themselves. Likewise, the escalators may seem to hold people back, as it prevents certain individuals from walking up, but it actually benefits the majority of riders as individual time is reduced.

In the meantime, London is growing faster than any other European city; its population of 8.6 million is expected to hit 10 million by 2030. The London Infrastructure Plan 2050 predicts demand on the system to rise by 60%, meaning that TfL has to extract every last ounce of capacity from its underground network, the oldest in the world.  Changing commuters’ behavior is becoming a more important part of efforts to increase the capacity of the London Tube. The stand-on-the-left controversy is no exception. Harrison, Stoneman and their colleagues think it could have a noticeable effect on congestion at some of London’s busiest stations— congestion that will only get worse as train design, frequency and reliability improve and more passengers exit on the platform at a time.
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Photograph of London Underground at St. Paul's station by
RanZag via Wikimedia Commons
Photograph of escalators at Holburn Station by renaissancechambara via Wikimedia Commons


Submitted by Patti Whaley on

Very interesting! I think what you imply, but do not state explicitly, is that while having everyone stand may be faster for the crowd *as a whole*, it is not necessarily the fastest thing *for me personally* if I am one of those who walk no matter how long the escalator is. As with so much in life, it boils down to the trade-off between public and private benefit.

Hi Patty, yes you are correct. There are trade-offs to every policy, and this one matters most to those who climb the escalators regardless of their length.

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