Letter: Does it really make sense to stand on just one side of the escalator?

Walking will not speed things up. Image: Getty.

Our latest dip into the CityMetric postbag...

Dear CityMetric,

I was scanning the article by Jamie Lloyd on the Hong Kong metro. It sounds lovely – I’ve never been but will try and check it out one day, for sure.

However, I got annoyed about half way down;

 “One caveat is in order: people stand on both sides of the escalator. It is hard to find the right words to describe how this I feel about this without descending into cheap hyperbole. I will merely say that this makes me feel like shooting myself into the sun. In a metro network defined by its commitment to functionality, the acceptance of this behaviour baffles me.”

I simply don’t understand this. And it infuriates me every time I have to battle the tube on the way to meetings in London, particularly when everything is snarled up at the top or bottom of escalators.

Plenty of research has shown that making everyone stand, regardless of which side of the escalator they are, might actually speed things up; and articles have appeared covering the topic, for example, here and here. Thinking about it, it’s not unlike a Smart Motorway, where we effectively make everyone go at the same speed to significantly increase capacity, by reducing braking, rather than allowing the odd BMW driver whizz along at 85mph, causing everyone else to brake/panic/swerve/crash around them. There’s a YouTube video on Traffic Snakes which talks about this very effect. It’s exactly the same argument as standing on escalators.

At Birmingham New Street station, the escalators often develop into a standing only state through no fault of the station management, particularly when a full train arrives in the peak periods – that was even before the recent makeover. But although there’s a lot of standing around, it works, and everyone gets on with their day a bit quicker. I'm not sure how it starts: I suspect someone stands on the left and everyone files in behind them. But then when I get on the Tube, I start to hear the tutting and shouting and all sorts, which doesn’t strike me as friendly or, more importantly, efficient. 

So I wonder why there isn’t more talk about changing habits on the underground, given all the evidence. Perhaps a fine website like yours might want to push for it a bit more, to see what impact it has; maybe get some more information from TfL on their trial. It would seem perfectly reasonable to instigate it during peak times – after all you’re only rushing along the escalators to join a queue to board a train – but keep it as current during less busy times.   

It really does seem that everyone appears to be in favour of using transport more efficiently, but no one thinks to tackle glaringly obvious bits. 

Thanks 

Steve Pearce

Birmingham

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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.