If we want to increase escalator capacity, why don’t we just run the things faster?

A busy day on the tube. Image: Getty.

While Londoners may still be recovering from the trauma, many outside the capital probably completely missed Transport for London’s audacious and sacrilegious experiment at Holborn station.

For three weeks, tube passengers stood on both sides of the escalators going up from the platforms to the ticket hall. There were people standing on both the left and the right. Nobody could walk.

I know: it was madness. I understand your anguish.

TfL’s logic was as follows. On long escalators, the vast majority of people won’t want to walk because humanity is an intuitively lazy species. Thus, huge queues build up at the bottom of the escalator as large volumes of people try to squeeze onto the right-hand side, so that they can obediently stand in line as they chug slowly upwards, like a slightly less sedate, slightly less terracotta terracotta army.

The experiment largely failed, because basically people are stubborn and changing the behaviour of large groups is, like, really hard. But anyone who has stood in a soul-crushing human mob at the bottom of an escalator at a tube station in rush hour will understand just how pressing the need is for a way to increase escalator capacity.


There’s an obvious solution – one that’s likely been suggested by amateur masters of logistics all over the world every time they’ve found themselves in such mildly antagonising and incremental-delay-incurring situations: run the things faster.

Theoretically, of course, this is possible. Escalator speeds vary a great deal anyway, even within London – those in shopping centres or department stores tend to run at about 0.5 metres per second, whilst the London Underground standard is 0.75 metres per second.

Looking further afield, city transport networks across the world run their escalators at all sorts of different speeds. New York City’s are horrendously slow, running at about 0.45 metres per second, whilst Prague, Stockholm, Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou settle around the stately 0.6 metres per second mark. Sydney, Singapore, and Seoul’s systems square up sensibly to London’s standard speed in the 0.75 metres per second region, with Seoul pushing ahead slightly at 0.78 metres per second. The trailblazer, though, is Hong Kong, whose escalators breeze along at 0.8 metres per second.

Fantastic! Great! So, all we have to do is compare escalator capacity in Hong Kong MTR stations with capacity in London tube stations, and-

This escalator on the Stockholm metro is not suffering from overcrowding. Image: Getty.

Unfortunately the comparison isn’t that simple. London’s escalator steps are, as standard, 1 metre wide and 0.4 metres deep. Many of Hong Kong’s escalators are significantly narrower and not as deep. Whether that’s clever space-saving on Hong Kong’s part, or ingenious future-proofing for the post-mass-obesity world by Transport for London, we may never know – but either way, it changes the rate at which steps reach the top, rendering direct comparisons based on speed alone impossible.

The speed limit

What we can do instead is to look at a bizarre study carried out by four students from Hong Kong on the relationship between escalator speed in metro systems and “pace of life”. They described that rather dubious metric described as “the rate; speed and relative rapidity or density of experiences, meanings, perceptions, and activities”. They calculated it by combining economic, climate, employment, and population indices.

One of the things they did as part of that study is to conduct reasonably lengthy interviews with users of metro systems (principally the Hong Kong MTR) about their experiences of the escalators on that system, and how that related to their impression of the city’s “pace of life”.  One businesswoman in her mid-twenties interviews for the study said that “Hong Kong people are used to the fast”; but most of the non-locals that they spoke to, mostly from mainland China, said that the escalators on the Hong Kong MTR were “too fast”.

Such comments highlight one of the biggest problems with running escalators faster. A study by Paul Davis and Goutam Dutta has already shown that the presence of non-commuters decreases capacity on London’s escalators. Meanwhile, an experiment with variable speed escalators in New York ended up with a Indian visitor falling over.

There is quite obviously a safety danger to be taken into account if you’re going to start running escalators at 0.8 metres per second or faster. The queues at the bottom of Holborn’s escalators might be shorter most of the time if said escalators are whizzing passengers upwards at silly speeds – but they’ll likely be considerably longer while the paramedics try and reach the elderly man who’s tumbled fifteen metres down an up escalator. Swings and roundabouts, you know?

For those less interested in actual human health and welfare, and more interested in the technical side of running large transport networks, there’s another problem with running such escalators at speed. The average walking speed is around 1.3 metres per second. If you take the running speed of London Underground escalators – 0.75 metres per second – and the rate at which people generally ascend the steps if they’re walking – around 0.7 metres per second – you end with a speed of 1.45 metres per second.

So people walking up escalators are actually travelling slightly faster than they do the rest of the time. And that’s a problem. When it’s only an incremental difference (0.15 metres per second), it leads to nothing more dangerous that awkward mincy super-walk that people do for the first few seconds after walking off the end of an escalator.

But when there’s a bigger difference in speed, it can cause major problems. Either, people trip over their own feet trying how to remember how to walk on non-moving ground, and cause a capacity-reducing pile-up in the process; or people stop at the top of the escalator to prepare themselves for walking on non-moving ground. And cause a capacity-reducing pile-up in the process.

Neither does this one in Lisbon. Pretty, though. Image: Getty.

Essentially, speeding up escalators causes more problems than it solves, and is ultimately no more than the silly solution of the kind of person who still hasn’t grown out of the childish habit of following every piece of information with, “But why?”

Start again

Fortunately, researchers Davis and Dutta do come up with some more sensible alternatives. Unfortunately, these are the sort of drastic changes that are much easier to implement you haven’t built your metro system yet than they are if you’re trying to unclog a jam-packed 150-year old system.

Of the many London Underground escalators they studied, the researchers found that those with the highest peak-time capacity were escalators with open, orderly approaches, not impeded by awkward corners and cross-flow confusions.

They found that having a corridor between the platform and the escalators acts as a filter for passengers alighting a train, improving capacity as passengers naturally filter out into two lines – one for walking and one for standing – in an orderly way (rather than the human crush you get when you come straight off the platform, turn a corner, and suddenly there’s an escalator). Interestingly, single escalators have a higher capacity than double escalators, because passengers don’t dither trying to work out which escalator to take.

So. If you want to get more of your passengers onto your struggling escalators during peak hours, you basically need to redesign your entire underground station. You need to build stations that naturally filter your passengers out into fast walkers, slow walkers, escalator standers and escalator walkers, and divide them into distinct groups.

Most of all, you need to not break any codes of etiquette that are probably as old as the city itself.

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To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.