Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
I’m one of those people who speed past everyone on the escalator. As long the left side isn’t blocked, no amount of judgement from fellow riders to the right, or safety warnings, or even falls (two and counting) will stop me—not yet anyway. I’m certainly not alone; it’s a common enough habit that some cities occasionally try to change such behavior for safety’s sake.
London’s tried, so has Hong Kong and Washington, D.C. Now it’s Tokyo’s turn. East Japan Railway Company (JR East) launched a campaign Monday calling on riders to stand on both sides of the escalators inside some of the city’s busiest transit hubs. Signs are posted on walls and above escalators, reading, in both Japanese and English, “Walking on escalators may lead to accidents caused by collisions or luggage.” Bright pink handrails carry similar messages. And in some stations, security staff with neon-colored vests stand watch and guide people. If people are really in a hurry, JR East suggests, they should take the stairs.
So far, the effort has had mixed results: According to the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), railway officials say that some people did stop but many commuters were still hustling up and down the escalator on Monday. The campaign is set to run until February 1.
But riders really should comply. As reported by Japan Times, a study by the Japan Elevator Association in Tokyo found that of the 1,475 escalator accidents in the city between 2013 and 2014, more than 880 were a result of people riding improperly (that includes walking or running on an escalator).
Then there’s the added bonus that it may finally stop people from being jerks on the escalator—like the London commuter captured in a viral video this year telling a blind man with a guide dog to let go of the handrail so he can pass him.
“It’s two seconds of your life,” a transit official, coming to the blind man’s defense, retorted. Yet it’s the appeal of shaving off those two seconds that makes walking on an escalator such a hard thing to give up. This even though science has proven that having everyone stand on an escalator is actually more efficient for, well, everyone.
As CityLab has previously reported, calculations from the engineering manager for Transport for London (TfL) suggested that having everyone stand on both sides of the escalators at Holborn station—one of the city’s busiest—could potentially accommodate an extra 31 people per minute, or 24 percent more passengers. Why? A 2002 theoretical study suggested that when escalators reach more than 60 feet high, fewer people will climb them, leaving ample space to carry standing passengers. (Indeed, those who choose to walk up some of the famously long escalators of Washington Metro’s underground stations, each stretching over 200 feet, embark on a lonely journey.)
When TfL put those hypotheses to the test in a three-week experiment at Holborn station in 2015, officials found the standing-only rule reduced congestion by 30 percent. Still, the trial remained just that—an experiment, without any longterm behavioral change.
Can JR East succeed where others could not? Japan has enjoyed an almost unparalleled success in subtly manipulating commuter behavior—nudging, as experts call it—from using blue LED lights to prevent suicide attempts at stations to emitting high-frequency tones to deter youngsters from loitering or vandalizing the premise. The company has tried making people stand on both sides of the escalators before, back in 2014, via a month-long campaign called “Let’s All Grab a Handrail.” Even then, as the Wall Street Journal reported, commuters preferred standing to one side to let others pass.
So why is it so hard spark what seems like such a simple behavioral change for the greater good? How hard is it, really, to just stand on an escalator?
As New York City’s former traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz told the New York Times last year, self-interest dominates “anywhere there is a capacity problem.” Telling someone to do something new, even explaining the logic behind the command, isn’t always effective. They’re going to need better incentives than that.
After that first try by JR East, people suggested alternatives on social media: Could Tokyo motivate people by awarding those who stand with money or points toward train rides? Or perhaps they could redesign the escalator, making them one-lane and therefore leaving commuters with no choice but to stand. But such ideas are costly, which explains why they haven’t been adopted.
Whether humans are inherently selfish or altruistic is still up for debate in the scientific community, but based on these standing-only campaigns alone, the former seems to be more accurate. As Pacific Standard reported on a 2017 study on moral decision-making points out, context is key. There’s a clear distinction on what it takes for someone to go down (or up) that path of altruism: Whether the person or people our actions affect will be “actively harmed, or simply fail to be rewarded.”
But the sight of a person falling on an escalator at the hands of a selfish walker is rare. So sure, I could sacrifice a few seconds to help get my fellow straphangers in or out of the metro station, but they have time to spare.