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Escalators: stand, walk or apply economic theory?

My favorite comedian, the late Mitch Hedberg, had this to say about escalators. “An escalator can never break. It can only become stairs. You would never see an ‘Escalator Temporarily Out Of Order’ sign, just ‘Escalator Temporarily Stairs. Sorry for the convenience.'”

Now that MARTA (Metro Atlanta Transit Authority), Altanta’s Metro, is my main mode of transportation I’ve been spending more time on escalators; I’ve been intrigued and slightly irritated by people’s habits on said escalators. I must say I would not be surprised if I witnessed something like this at a MARTA station or my office.

Usually I am alone when I experience the phenomenon of people treating escalators like a lazy river. I sometimes picture escalators leading to the top of a cliff and wonder if people would willingly accept a fatal destiny because they seem so content to simply let the escalator dictate their pace and direction.

Tonight I was sharing an escalator ride with my lovely wife at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and started sharing my opinions. During a mini-rant about escalators I pretended like I was a lowly escalator-stander and mockingly said in the most droll, ridiculous voice I could muster: “Take me to the top”. Apparently this was too much for the lady standing in front of us because she desperately tried but miserably failed to nonchalantly turn around, mask her SEG (sh.. eating grin) and catch a glimpse of the miserable character behind her.

My wife and I instantly recognized this, glanced at each other and “shared a moment” like Ben Affleck’s character in Chasing Amy described. Hilarity. About 45 seconds later, probably 20 seconds longer than it should have been, we got to the top and crossed paths with the escalator-stander again; the lady couldn’t contain her laughter anymore. She shook her head and allowed herself to laugh while we made eye contact and shared a moment together.

During the due diligence phase of the posting process I discovered that I am not the first to ponder the mysteries wrapped in enigmas described here as escalator-standers. Steven E. Landsberg and fellow noted economists from the University of Rochester’s Economics department were intrigued by the very thing. Landsberg examined the problem from the marginal analysis angle in his Everyday Economics Slate article One Small Step For Man. Like a true economist Landsberg made the argument more difficult than it is and framed it as a question of why people would walk up stairs and not escalators because the cost is the same. In the end, he satisfied the marginal analysis argument by considering the measurement of benefits to time rather than distance. His brilliant conclusion:

…a step on the stairs saves you more time than a step on the escalator because—well, because if you stand still on the stairs, you’ll never get anywhere. So walking on the stairs makes sense even when walking on the escalator doesn’t.

Maybe I’m not fully understanding marginal analysis, but if time is the measure then how is it reasonable to say people don’t walk on escalators? If you walk up or down escalators, you will certainly get to where you are going faster. Maybe my economist sister can help me with this.

NC State’s Steve Margolis is not buying Landsberg’s far-fetched theories either. On the blog Newmark’s Door, Margolis is quoted extensively all to say that escalator-standers are uncoordinated fools who are afraid of the inevitable “uncomfortable lurch” that greets them at the top. Really? Maybe you lurch the first time you walk up an escalator, but as learned beings I think we have the ability to adjust to our surroundings and find comfortable methods of navigating simple machines like escalators. Where Margolis’s argument gets compelling is when he posits that people stand out of common courtesy. He estimates that most adults need six to eight feet(!) to plan their escalator dismount routine and in crowded places everyone close behind those who are strategizing safe exits are simply politely waiting their turn. Um, not likely…common courtesy has gone the way of the dodo. Margolis attempts to bolster his safety-based argument by saying that people do tend to walk on non-crowded escalators and moving walkways which lack the termination problem.

Personal experience has taught me otherwise. MARTA escalators are rarely crowded and my unscientific estimate puts the escalator-stander crowd at about 85%. I believe the reason people stand on escalators is really the most obvious reason: they are lazy. If you want to be lazy, that’s on you. I don’t understand it, but I won’t be irritated if you stay out of my way. Escalator architects or whomever is responsible for their operation should take a lesson from moving walkways. Put a line down the middle of steps and post signs along the ride instructing riders to stand on the right, walk on the left. Many places, but not enough places, you will find this is the norm. Let’s standardize on this brilliant idea. The problem with this, of course, is that less and less people fit on one side of an escalator due to the obesity epidemic. But that is a problem for another day.

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