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Commuters crowd the escalators at the after getting off the subway at Yonge and Bloor on Jan. 2 2019.

Fred Lum

It turns out we might all have been using escalators wrong.

One of the oldest rules of transit etiquette – if you don’t want to walk on the escalator, don’t block those trying to get by – is under increasing scrutiny, criticized by those who say it’s more efficient for people to stand still on both sides.

Academic simulations show more people can move if everyone is standing, by reducing the space between them. A pilot project in a London transit station brought big increases in the number of people who could use the escalator. Hong Kong has also experimented with telling people not to walk on escalators. And parts of Tokyo Station, one of the busiest rail hubs in the Japanese capital, started testing the approach in December.

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But the idea remains controversial, particularly among those who like to walk and would be slowed for the common good. And some Canadian transit agencies say taking this approach could be a step too far.

“It’s very much known: You’re in the system, you stand right, walk left,” said Aliya Mohamed, spokeswoman for the Vancouver transit agency Translink, which is aware of the new approach and watching with interest, but has no plans to stop people walking on escalators.

“It’s hard to suggest to people just to stand, you know. I mean, it’s a functional system. We move half a million people every day. People are just moving, moving, moving.”

The expectation of standing to the right, followed in most of the world, is thought to date to the first escalator installed in the London Tube, in 1911. It was also in London that the shortcomings of this approach were eventually laid bare.

In a 2016 experiment at Holborn station, staff did their best to encourage people to stand on one escalator while allowing them to use other escalators as normal. The standing-only escalator carried 151 people per minute, 31 per cent more than mixed-use escalators nearby, according to Transport for London data obtained under access laws by the website Gizmodo.

The result exceeded academic projections in a 2013 study in the journal Transportation Research Record that showed standing only could boost escalator capacity by nearly 20 per cent.

The counterintuitive result is rooted in the fact that, according to several studies, only a minority of escalator users walk on escalators. However, these relatively few people are given half the space in the traditional approach. And they tend to spread out more, using their space less efficiently.

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The other half of the escalator, meanwhile, has to absorb the majority that likes to stand. The result can be too many people trying to use that side, causing line-ups just to get on. The effect is particularly pronounced at the busiest stations and those with the longest escalators, which tend to discourage walking.

If everyone were standing, more people could be carried and the average user would get there faster. But this would be achieved by slowing down the minority that prefers to walk.

In one simulation, the consulting firm Capgemini looked at London’s Green Park station. They concluded that moving to a standing-only system would mean the 40 per cent of users who had previously walked would be delayed 13 seconds. But the 60 per cent of people already accustomed to standing would save 79 seconds of combined queueing and escalator time.

At the Toronto Transit Commission, Canada’s most heavily used transit system, staff say their escalators aren’t generally long enough for mandatory standing to make a meaningful difference.

Which is not to say that they want people to walk. In 2007, the TTC removed escalator signs telling passengers to stand to the right. This was done for safety reasons, said spokesman Stuart Green, out of concern someone would get hurt. Any efficiency benefits are coincidental and there are no plans to enforce a standing-only policy, which has proved difficult in a number of cities.

In spite of the efficiency gains demonstrated at Holborn station, getting people to follow the new rule required extensive staffing that Transport for London deemed unsustainable. And the public reaction was heated.

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“We might be bad at dancing and expressing our feelings, but say this for the British: When we settle on a convention of public order, we bloody well stick to it,” Archie Bland wrote in The Guardian. “We wait in line. We leave the last biscuit. And when we take the escalator, we stand on the right. The left is reserved for people in a hurry.”

Although Transport for London media staff could not be reached for comment, things have seemingly returned to normal. Shortly before Christmas, the agency enlisted singer Mariah Carey to remind riders to stand to the right.

Hapless tourists who break this rule in London tend to feel the disapproval of the locals. In Canada, also, differing opinions about how to use escalators can ruffle feathers.

Pat Hegarty, the senior manager of station operations for Metrolinx, the regional transit agency and arm of the Ontario government, says it’s safer for everyone to stand on escalators. But he admits walking sometimes himself, and acknowledges customers in a hurry can be unhappy when blocked.

“I think there’s some minor tension, but we’re talking about Toronto and Canada here,” he said. “Most people just stop behind them and look impatient."

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