29 Feb 2024

Escalator Etiquette

The London Underground is the oldest underground railway system in the world. Dating back to 1863, it operates 451 escalators in 272 stations, serving a population of 9.6 million in Greater London, with 1.35 billion passengers per year.

Given the tidal waves of traffic that engulf the system daily, it is scarcely surprising that the tube authorities evolved a code of underground etiquette, which regulated passenger behaviour, and was disseminated through an imaginative series of public information posters.

Escalators did not appear on the system until 1911, at Earl’s Court. A one-legged man named ‘Bumper Harris’ was employed to ride up and down the escalator in a bid to persuade reluctant passengers that the innovation was perfectly safe. Initially, guards instructed passengers to walk up the escalators, treating them as moving staircases. These first escalators used a ‘shunt’ mechanism, which ended with a diagonal partition that diverted passengers to the left. Gradually underground workers introduced a system where those who wished to stand could do so on the right-hand side, while those who wanted to walk were instructed to use the left-hand side so they were not forced to cut through the standing passengers when they disembarked.

Escalators evolved and became more sophisticated, but the early pattern of standing on the right, walking up on the left became a fixture of tube travel, a part of every Londoner’s psyche. This pillar of tube etiquette was only challenged in 2016 when TfL authorities, increasingly concerned by the demands that growing numbers of Londoners were making on the over-stretched transit system, decided to investigate the idea that – especially when escalators were extremely long and therefore an unappealing walking prospect, eg at Holborn – passenger flow would be significantly increased if both sides of the escalator were used for standing passengers. An experiment was duly set up at Holborn station: passengers were advised by megaphone-wielding tube workers that both sides of the escalator were for standing only. The experiment confirmed the authorities’ theory and passenger flow increased by 24 per cent. However, passengers were deeply perplexed and irritated by the new regime and clearly felt that they were being deprived of a fundamental freedom. TfL have not repeated the experiment.

There is no doubt that, for passengers who are in a hurry, anxious to use running up escalators as part of their daily cardio regime, or simply bored by the slow trundle of the escalators, the current system provides an invaluable freedom of choice. Of course, like much etiquette, it will only work if the system is respected, and most passengers comply willingly. However, despite clear signage and evident custom, the standing on the right rule is sometimes disregarded by visitors to London, or people travelling in large groups. When this happens, the offenders will find themselves subjected to passive-aggressive tuts and pseudo-polite “Excuse me” exclamations. It is just not done.

Interestingly, the deeply ingrained London escalator rules have been transferred to travelators in British airports. Of course, some weary passengers are more than happy to stand still and let the travelator do the hard work of pounding down the endless corridors. Others are desperate to put the whole airport experience behind them and keen to exploit the double-speed option of walking along the travelator. In general, people tend to stand on the right and walk on the left even though they are not explicitly requested to do so by the airport authorities.

Five Rules of Escalator Etiquette

1.  Leave one step between you and the person in front. This will ensure that you are not bumping up against the preceding passenger, but will also minimise the gap, ensuring more people can utilise the escalator at the same time.

2.  Be vigilant about parents with buggies and small children and anyone with mobility issues, stand back and gesture for them to get on the escalator first. It will be much easier for them if they do not feel pressurised by fellow passengers.

3.  Remember the standing on the right rule applies to your luggage too. If you’ve got really big bags, put them on the step in front of you, and ensure that they’re not poking out into the left-hand land and impeding walkers’ progress.

4.  Hold on to the handrail, face forwards, and keep your feet firmly on the step. Don’t stare fixedly at the people going in the opposite direction, which is disconcerting.

5.  Move on. Remember, it’s a moving staircase, which is repeatedly disgorging people, so once you disembark move on swiftly to ensure that you’re not causing an obstruction to the people behind you – no bemused hanging round as you try to work out where to go, or sudden bending over to tie your shoelaces.


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