Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Not on the London Underground

Artistic shot to helpfully indicate that this article is primarily about escalators. Image: Tom Page

How do you teach an old dog new tricks?

On the London Underground, they’ve resorted to pleading. “Please stand on both sides of the escalator for better efficiency during refurbishment works!” – so cried a sign at Oxford Circus station the other week.

People read it, before diligently filing to stand the right and leave the left side free for walkers.

Having everyone stand still on the escalator is a more efficient way to empty a station at rush hour – Transport for London is right about this.

So why won’t we just do it? The problem is that TfL is up against Tube etiquette, and for Londoners, anything else is anarchy or tourism.

Habits are hard to break.

A 2016 study from Duke University suggests habits leave lasting marks on circuits in the brain, priming us to repeat an action long after it stops being beneficial. So depending on your outlook, Londoners are either shaming or priding themselves by refusing to comply with requests to stand on both sides – now as well as during escalator trials in 2015 and 2016.

The Holborn experiment worked as long as Tube staff were physically present to enforce it, facing off swearing, showing, and eye rolling. Without supervision, the travelling public quickly returned to the habit of a lifetime.

The escalators at Holborn station. Image: Renaissance Chambara/creative commons.

TfL learned two lessons at Holborn, according to a Freedom of Information request by Gizmodo. Firstly, it’s really hard to change crowd behaviour. Secondly, we really should be trying, as it would be better for all of us. The tube network is bursting at the seams, and having people stand instead of walk could mean station capacity increasing by about 30%.

The specifics depend on the number of people and the length of the escalator, although TfL summed it up nicely to CityMetric at the time of the initial test: "We get a lot of congestion at the bottom because the majority of customers don't want to walk. The left hand side empty, while everyone is queuing up to stand on the right. By filling up both sides, we can actually carry more people more quickly and clear that congestion."

You’d think this is an idea that Londoners could get behind: do this simple thing you’ll get in and out of the station faster.

And better yet: the station becomes far less likely to temporarily close to prevent overcrowding, meaning we won’t be piling up outside a closed station door. But TfL aren’t planning any more trials, in large part because it’s just too hard to get people to cooperate.

Beautifully shiny, empty escalators. Image: Tom Page/creative commons.

This may seem ridiculous, but as all logical minds eventually discover: rationality isn’t always the motivating force.

Habit is just one factor here – Londoners have come to see the idea of walking on the left as a signifier of belonging, to the point where being elbowed for standing on the wrong side may be considered a genuine London tourist experience. And besides, walking on one side of the escalator feels like it should be more efficient, right?

Now, if you’re ready to dismiss this whole escalator business as “a London thing”, consider how most airlines board their planes back to front, despite evidence proving this is the slowest method of all.

That may seem counter-intuitive, but when everyone boarding together has to go to the same ten rows, they pile up behind each other and everything slows down.

Paddington, with those fun stairs you can run up. Image: Chris McKenna/creative commons.

When the Discovery Channel tested out various boarding methods, back-to-front boarding was found to be the slowest, taking 25 minutes to board 173 people. Far quicker was random boarding to assigned seats, which took just 17 minutes.


Part of the problem is that we have so much carry-on baggage now that airlines charge for check-in luggage, resulting in airplane boarding times having more than doubled since 1970. But while people still have to put their bags away during random boarding, at least they’re spread out along the entire length of the plane.

Airlines are aware of these facts too, and it’s expensive to idle on the runway. So why are we still boarding from the back of the plane?

One of the reasons is that people really don’t like random boarding, apparently finding it “frustrating” or "confusing (a fact that’s confusing in its own right - we’re talking about sitting down in a plane here).

But it shows that London commuters aren’t that unusual. Once we have an idea about the best way to do something, it’s hard to change, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Not to mention how the pleasure of habit is often its own reward.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.