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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There isn’t a single national housing market – so we need multiple models of local regeneration, too

Rochdale. Image: Getty.

This week’s budget comes ten years after the 2007 financial crisis. The trigger for that crisis was a loss in confidence in mortgages for homes, with banks suddenly recognising the vulnerability of loans on their books.

In the last ten years, the UK’s cities and regions have followed very different paths. This week’s focus on housing affordability is welcome, but it will be a challenge for any chancellor in the coming decade to use national policy to help towns up and down the country. Local housing markets differ drastically. The new crop of city-region mayors are recognising this, as rents in parts of south Greater Manchester are on average double the rents in parts of the north of the city-region.

When it comes to buying a home, politicians are increasingly articulate about the consequences of inequity in our housing system. But we must recognise that, for 9m citizens who live in social rented homes, the prospects of improvements to properties, common areas and grounds are usually tied to wider projects to create new housing within existing estates – sometimes involving complete demolition and rebuilding.

While the Conservative governments of the 1980s shrank the scale of direct investment in building homes for social rent, the Labour governments from the late 1990s used a sustained period of growth in property prices to champion a new model: affordable housing was to be paid for by policies which required contributions to go to housing associations. Effectively, the funding for new affordable housing and refurbished social homes was part of the profit from market housing built next door, on the same turf; a large programme of government investment also brought millions of social rented homes up to a decent standard.

This cross-subsidy model was always flawed. Most fundamentally, it relies on rising property prices – which it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect. Building more social homes became dependent on ratcheting up prices and securing more private profit. In London, we are starting to see that model come apart at the seams.

The inevitable result has been that with long social housing waiting lists and rocketing market prices, new developments have too often ended up as segregated local communities, home to both the richest and the poorest. They may live side by side, but as the RSA concluded earlier this year, investment in the social infrastructure and community development to help neighbours integrate has too often been lacking. Several regeneration schemes that soldiered on through the downturn did so by building more private homes and fewer social rented homes than existed before, or by taking advantage of more generous legal definitions of what counts as ‘affordable housing’ – or both.

A rough guide to how house prices have changed since 2007: each hexagon is a constituency. You can explore the full version at ODI Leeds.

In most of England’s cities, the story does not appear to be heading for the dramatic crescendo high court showdowns that now haunt both developers and communities in the capital. In fact, for most social housing estates in most places outside London, national government should recognise that the whole story looks very different. As austerity measures have tightened budgets for providers of social housing, budgets to refurbish ageing homes are under pressure to do more with less. With an uncertain outlook for property prices, as well as ample brownfield and greenfield housing sites, estates in many northern towns are not a priority for private investors in property development.

In many towns and cities – across the North and the Midlands – the challenges of a poor quality built environment, a poor choice of homes in the local are, and entrenched deprivation remain serious. The recent reclassification of housing associations into the private sector doesn’t make investing in repairs and renewal more profitable. The bespoke ‘housing deals’ announced show that the government is willing to invest directly – but there is anxiety that devolution to combined authorities simply creates another organisation that needs to prioritise building new homes over the renewal of existing neighbourhoods.


In Rochdale, the RSA is working with local mutual housing society RBH to plan for physical, social and economic regeneration at the same time. Importantly, we are making the case – with input from the community of residents themselves – that significant investment in improving employment for residents might itself save the public purse enough money to pay for itself in the long-run.

Lots of services are already effective at helping people find work and start a job. But for those for whom job searching feels out of reach, we are learning from Rochdale Borough Council’s pioneering work that the journey to work can only come from trusting, personal relationships. We hear time and again about the demoralising effect of benefits sanctions and penalties. We are considering an alternative provision of welfare payments, as are other authorities in the UK. Importantly, residents are identifying clearly the particular new challenges created by new forms of modern employment and the type of work available locally: this is a town where JD Sports is hiring 1000 additional workers to fulfil Black Friday orders at its warehouse.

In neighbourhoods like Rochdale’s town centre, both national government and the new devolved city-region administration are considering an approach to neighbourhood change that works for both people and place together. Redevelopment of the built environment is recognised as just one aspect of improving people’s quality of life. Residents themselves will tell you quality jobs and community facilities are their priority. But without a wider range of housing choices and neighbourhood investment locally, success in supporting residents to achieve rising incomes will mean many residents are likely to leave places like Rochdale town centre altogether.

Meaningful change happen won’t happen without patience and trust: between agencies in the public sector, between tenants and landlords, and between citizens and the leaders of cities. This applies as much to our planning system as it does to our complex skills and employment system.

Trust builds slowly and erodes quickly. As with our other projects at the RSA, we are convinced that listening and engaging citizens will improve policy-making. Most of those involved in regeneration know this better than anyone. But at the national level we need to recognise that, just as the labour market and the housing market vary dramatically from place to place, there isn’t a single national story which represents how communities feel about local regeneration.

Jonathan Schifferes is interim Director, Public Services and Communities, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).