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DC Notepad: Movin' On Up

I've always felt sorry for Charles Seeberger, inventor of the modern escalator. I don't know a thing about him, but I've come to envision him as a wide-eyed idealist, a benevolent visionary who thought -- like the early proponents of television -- that his new-fangled gadget would change the world for the better. "Just imagine," I hear Mr. Seeberger whisper in tones of wonder, "Now people will be able to ascend stairs twice as fast as they could before. Utopia is just around the corner."

And then, in this mental fantasy of mine, I imagine the horror and revulsion Seeberger would feel if he were to visit any modern America mall, and see how his gift to the world has become a force of evil. Because people do not walk up the escalator, as Seeberger and God intended, and therefore reach the top of their climb no faster than they would using non-motorized stairs. Instead they stand immobile on the escalator, like tourists at the Mount Olympus Zoo's gorgon exhibit. Instead of improving the world, the escalator has instead just become another contributor to the lazification of Planet Earth.

These were conclusions I had drawn after living most of my life in Seattle, where folks wouldn't walk up an escalator if it burst into flames. And although I haven't visited many large American cities, I assumed this phenomenon was constant throughout the nation, a conception that was reinforced last summer when Slate published an article describing how Economists at the University of Rochester had observed the same thing (i.e., the average American walks up an escalator about as often as Bob Dole plays tetherball).

Now, this wouldn't be so bad if you has the option to walk up the escalator if you wanted to. But you don't -- not in Seattle, at any rate. When I was in Europe, I noticed that while not everyone opted to stay in motion while on an escalator, at least the stationary folks kept to one side so that those wishing to climb were able to do so. In Seattle no one ever stays to one side -- even those riding alone insist on occupying the exact center of the path -- and asking someone to move over so you can pass is considered about as polite as inquiring if you can stab them with a pike.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that Washington D.C. citizens walk up escalators or stand to one side to allow others to do so! What the hoohaw?! Is this unique to DC, or is Seattle the only hotbed of not-to-the-side-escalator-standers in the nation?

No seriously, I want to know. The comments are open.

Posted on March 06, 2003 to On The Road


You're not imagining in. If you want to stand, you're supposed to do that on the right side. Walkers (and runners) do their thing on the left. I've seen that on escalators in D. C. subways and at D. C. and Maryland malls. In fact, if you stand in the middle of the escalator and block the walkers, that's considered rude.

Posted by: Trish Wilson on March 7, 2003 11:50 AM

Seattle folks really don't like walking up escalators (or down for that matter...) It drives me batty! Especially in the bus tunnel when I'm late for work!

Posted by: Andi on March 7, 2003 12:09 PM

People here in Denver also either stand to one side or walk. Ive never seen anyone run while on the escalator, although a friend of mine got the front part of his Roobok caught in on once. He wasn't hurt too bad, but boy did we laugh.

Posted by: Dave Beefoven on March 7, 2003 12:15 PM

You almost never see people standing on escalators in Berkeley or San Francisco. And if they stand, they do it to the right (or risk having their bad etiquette pointed out by a helpful local).

Posted by: Jessica on March 7, 2003 12:26 PM

In NYC people do stand, but they wisely do it on the right to avoid being crushed by people using the device correctly.

Is it the case that in cities where everyone stands on escalators they also wait for the light to change before they walk across the street? Even when there is no traffic? Frankly, I'm a bit more dismayed by this behavior.

Posted by: Jim on March 7, 2003 12:29 PM

I live 30 minutes from D.C. and have never walked up the escalator a day of my life.
Why expend the energy when the second you get off you'll be walking anyways. That's excersize enough.

Posted by: Simon on March 7, 2003 12:29 PM

Years ago, I visited London and saw for the first time the concept of stand to the right. I always thought that the reason that this worked was that people screamed bloody murder if you dared stand to the left or middle. So, Matt, what you need to do is this. Forget about politeness and tell them to stand to the right or walk on the left. If *everyone* did this, things would work as they do in DC.
This, of course, reminds me of a similar phenomenah on american roads...

Posted by: rob on March 7, 2003 12:30 PM

I think the Toronto subway escalators have signs telling you to stay on the right if you're not walking. I can't remember how they conveyed that symbolically. Most people follow it or at least get out of the way if you say excuse me.

Posted by: Dan McKay on March 7, 2003 12:38 PM

Just found that there's a campaign in Montreal to have signs posted on the escalators.

Posted by: Dan McKay on March 7, 2003 12:42 PM

In Vancouver the escalators at transit stations are posted with signs saying to stand on the right and walk on the left. If you're from out of town and just standing there blocking people from passing you will get asked to stand aside.

Posted by: Eric on March 7, 2003 12:51 PM

I don't know how extensively you travelled in DC, but some of those Metro subway escalators are huge. It's a several minute ride from the bottom to the top. Nothing's more fun than being confronted by a gaggle of tourists blocking the entire escalator, while you're hauling up those stairs trying to make your bus connection. Use of elbows and knees is not only necessary but can be very stress relieving after a long day on the job.

Here in San Francisco, we don't have many huge escalators, and people are pretty considerate anyway - if you're in the way, you'll be politely asked to move aside, where in DC you'd probably be snippily told to "MOVE!" Also, the general population here is much more laid back and less in a hurry than people in DC, so when one does get confronted with non-movers, waiting a few extra seconds is not going to cause one to burst a blood vessel.

Posted by: Kim on March 7, 2003 12:54 PM

Add San Jose and LA to the list of places where people Just Stand There In The Way. I tell them to move aside anyway.

And, for Jim: In the 1970's or early 1980's, I (from LA at the time) attended a Unix conference at Columbia University in New York City. A group of about eight of us attendees was walking down Broadway. About half were from California. We hit a side street with a red light, and *all* of the Californians stopped, while none of the New Yorkers even broke their stride.

Don't know why you'd be dismayed by this (stopping when the light is red) behavior: it is, after all, legally required and cops are hiding everywhere these days, ready to strip you of all of your rights for even the slightest infraction.

Posted by: Doug L. on March 7, 2003 12:59 PM

You're right about standing on the right on DC escalators, especially in the Metro. It really makes things go faster. In fact, if someone is standing on the left, it's a sure bet that they're from out of town. If you're visiting DC, you'll avoid a lot of evil eyes if you stand on the right....especially during rush hour. Trying to get down, or up, the escalator while weaving between groups of tourists (or others) blocking the entire width is one of the things that makes summer here such a pain (when most people visit in droves)...notwithstanding the heat and humidity.

Posted by: Liz on March 7, 2003 1:02 PM

It's true, it's true! I live outside D.C. and ride the Metro (think Subway). It's an unspoken law that you stand up as you come into the "station" and if stand on the right side if you aren't walking. Bookbags, suitcases, and most importantly, FEET MUST be out of the way! Or you'll be run over. Growing up outside of D.C. I was well prepared to get out of the way in NYC. (NYC seems to be more polite, the people say "sorry" or "excuse me".)
I had family from Indiana visit D.C. They simply couldn't understand the concept of getting up before the stop or getting out of the way. Of course, the most excerise they do is get in and out of their car...

Posted by: Katherine on March 7, 2003 1:11 PM

Having lived in or visited many cities across Canada, I can assure you that allowing others to pass on an escalator is common across this country. When the escalator gets crowded, it's hard to see in action, but when it% Btfairly sparse, people tend to stay to one side.

Posted by: Karl on March 7, 2003 1:22 PM

I have a friend that works for an escalator repair company and they refer to these modern marvels as “meat grinders” due to the number of people that are injured by them every year. Take the stairs (except at Rosslyn where the stairs are five billion miles long) it’s easier than trying to weave around the lazy people and safer.
Oh, and people in Boston stand to the right for the most part, but there are a number of “single lane” escalators and it only takes one jerk to stop up the works.

Posted by: B on March 7, 2003 1:25 PM

yep, i'll second that. in the SF bay area escalators have a fast/walking lane (left) and a slow/standing lane (right).

Posted by: nookiemonster on March 7, 2003 1:35 PM

People enjoy standing or sitting next to their travelling partners, not behind them. This shows up on escalators, in trains and among bicycle riders. If you are travelling alone, there is no reason to stand on the left, but if you are with a friend, it is nice to stand next to them and chat.

Posted by: Rob Cockerham on March 7, 2003 1:37 PM

What's up with the stories of rude shoving aside and "move!" comments on DC escalators and metros? Not my experience, but I'm sorry to hear it's others'.

I haven't been able to find the link, but in the past year the WPost has run stories about whether DC should Discourage walking on escalators. Apparently the escalators were designed for riding, not walking, which causes big maintenance problems? (DC has other escalator maintenance problems besides walkers, though.)

Posted by: Wynne on March 7, 2003 2:03 PM

I'd like to put in a word for Chicago, where, yes, many people walk and it is accepted that one stands to the right. I have never been anywhere where this is not the case, unless the escalator is particularly small.

However, being a native Californian (from a suburb where kids received jaywalking tickets for $55 outside the high school on a regular basis), I do believe that, in a big city, it is best to wait for the crossing signal. You just never know which drivers are going too fast, turning when they shouldn't, and generally not paying attention. It's quite devastating when someone you know is hit by a car, even when he's in the crosswalk, and I think that jaywalking makes the street unsafe not only for pedestrians, but also for the drivers who may stop or slow down suddenly even when you may have had plenty of time to cross in front of them.

Posted by: aneesa on March 7, 2003 2:09 PM

Here in the NYC exurbs, preteens are the only ones running on escalators, usually jostling everyone else as they pass.

Those of us who do any real exercise head for the stairs. We're usually alone.

Posted by: Laurie on March 7, 2003 2:12 PM

Odd that we Washingtonians stand. However, it is not a phenomenon unique to Seattle: I attended graduate school in Houston, Texas (for those of you who don't recall, ranked the fattest city in the country for the second year running). Houstonians are among the ranks of those who stand on escalators, but there, unlike here, your average Houstonian is so wide that even asking them to step aside isn't a possibility - they'd still take up the entire escalator width. So yes, we here in Seattle could benefit from walking, or at least stepping aside. But it could be worse...

Posted by: Ann on March 7, 2003 2:14 PM

Here's what I think:
Walkers -> people in cities - you got things to do - especially at subway stations (or whatever you call them in your city of origin).
Immobilizers -> suburbanites, especially in malls where you're too slack-jawed in consumerist indecision to move.

Posted by: Elizabeth on March 7, 2003 2:22 PM

My biggest beef with escalators are the idiots who step off at the top or bottom, and just stand there. I was in the subway once, taking the escalator up to the platform (this particular station, the train was elevated). The guy a few steps ahead of me with a big honkin' backpack gets to the top, steps off, and apparently decides that he's where he needs to be, and just stands there looking around. Since this was a single-wide escalator, I had to real choice but to push him from behind and get him to realize that other people also used the escalator.

Posted by: Gary on March 7, 2003 3:12 PM

In Cleveland and Boston, most people stand to the right. I've noticed that more people in Boston walk. But regardless, even with friends and couples, I rarely see people standing next to each other and blocking the way.

Posted by: James Park on March 7, 2003 3:38 PM

Yes, Seattle has bad habits, but that is also becasue they use escalators only in Malls. Other cities (NYC

My theory that people stand in the middle is because they're afraid to touch the side (dirt, germs, who knows?)

Posted by: will on March 7, 2003 4:22 PM

I don't have any problem with the people standing, it's the walkers that bug me - I'm trying to slide down the rail and they've got their paws all over it. Going up, however, is a different story - usually I find a small room nearby and push a button inside it and the entire building lowers itself to meet me.

Posted by: The Olsen Triplets on March 7, 2003 7:12 PM

Most of the people in train stations in Osaka stand to the right as well, the walkers go up the left, but at the department store they actually play loudspeaker announcements (in both Japanese and English) asking you to stay in the middle.

Because Japan needs to be more confusing.

Posted by: Lee on March 7, 2003 9:03 PM

Kim: "I don't know how extensively you travelled in DC, but some of those Metro subway escalators are huge. It's a several minute ride from the bottom to the top. Nothing's more fun than being confronted by a gaggle of tourists blocking the entire escalator, while you're hauling up those stairs trying to make your bus connection. Use of elbows and knees is not only necessary but can be very stress relieving after a long day on the job."

Been there, done that. Assuming I'm thinking of the right escalator, the one in Union Station is huge. If tourists block your way, a polite but loud 'EXCUSE ME!" does the trick, too. They'll say contrite "sorries," and shuffle out of the way. You have to be loud to be heard over the road noise. I'm too short for elbows and knees to do much good so I use my shoulders. I could always kick them in the shins, but I don't think that would get me very far.

Posted by: Trish Wilson on March 8, 2003 5:00 AM

Chicago has a 'stand on the right' policy, and anyone who dares step off and stop gets shoved.

Posted by: Daphne on March 8, 2003 5:42 AM

This says it all. (via Uren.Dagen.Nachten)

Posted by: David on March 8, 2003 8:07 AM

I guess I live in an alternate San Francisco from Jessica and the others. In my San Francisco (where I have to escalate my way out of BART stations often), the number of people on any given escalator who understand the no-standing-on-the-left rule equals the number of people on the escalator, minus one. Always. Usually, the person behind the roadblock will not say anything, but the person behind ME (eleven bodies back) will. As if I can do anything about it?

Posted by: K on March 8, 2003 9:45 AM

People in NYC are probably in more of a hurry than anywhere on the planet, so that may explain why (at least in the subways, etc.) most everyone either stands to the right or whooshes by in the "passing lane". Those tourists (or other oblivious beings) who do not stand away either get a loud "excuse me!", or get bumped...

Posted by: David Lee Myers on March 8, 2003 2:23 PM

Downtown Toronto seems to be about an even mix of "walk left" and "stand right", but almost everyone presses the button for the automatic door openers.

Posted by: Herman Thrust on March 8, 2003 5:53 PM

It's true. It's probably the best thing about this city (I am in DC...obviously, right?). I think people are perfectly nice about it, even to the tourists; all I've ever heard said to people standing on the left is "excuse me". Oh, and I've been known to roll my eyes, crane my neck, and sigh exasperatedly (but quietly) if I'm trapped behind someone standing on the left (especially on the huge escalators at Woodley and Dupont metros) -- but that's mostly so the people behind me will know it's not my fault. :)

Love your site, Matt.


Posted by: Isabel on March 8, 2003 9:27 PM

It's the same in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, you either STAND on the right or walk up the left. (Or is it the other way around ... I don't remember exactly.)

Posted by: rowster on March 9, 2003 5:13 AM

In Tokyo, people stand to the left and walk on the right. Which is odd considering that in Osaka its opposite.

Posted by: adam on March 9, 2003 8:43 PM

I think the thing that most affects it is the populace. I've never lived in a big city in my life and am not accustomed to public transportation. My only experience with escalators is malls and airports for the most part. And people in malls are not usually trying to get anywhere fast. My first hint that these devices are actually built for you to walk on was when they put those people-mover giant treadmill things in the airport where there are two lanes clearly delineated.

Now I'm smart enough to notice the habits of the locals and follow suite, but the typical tourist is not, especially when they flock together. So don't be afraid to poke em in the ribs, they probably don't know any better.

Posted by: Jamie on March 10, 2003 5:37 AM

Damn straight you have to stand on the right, walk on the left in DC. After living here for five years it still irks me to see tourists clogging up the escalator. I live near the National Zoo so weekends are especially tricky - everyone's got their lil darlings out to see the pandas. I find a huffy "ex-CUSE me" does the trick. The metros even used to have signs up telling you to stand on the right, but took them down under the pretense that they didn't want to risk injuries to the escalators by having people walk on them. Given their shoddy maintenance record, having people walk on the escalators are the least of Metro's concerns.

Posted by: Vic on March 10, 2003 8:14 AM

"Chicago has a 'stand on the right' policy, and anyone who dares step off and stop gets shoved."

I don't know where Daphne's riding her escalators, but I have never found this to be the case. Sometimes it's all I can do to stop from screaming "Do you see Mickey Mouse? No? That's cos we're not at Disney and this ain't a goddam ride - move it!!"

But I have anger management issues.

Posted by: Miss Lis on March 10, 2003 10:23 AM

No one has mentioned Miami. In Miami people act on escalators the same way they drive: where ever and however they please, and nobody feels any particular presure to be polite. The fun part, on the escalator, is that this applies to the climbers as well as the standers. If Stander is riding, he will most likely be in the middle. Here comes Runner and boom, smacks Stander out of the way. The polite ones may say "out of the way" or its equivalent in spanish, as they bump the stander. These general rules seem to apply equally to all modes of transportation - crosswalks, streets, escalators, elevators. There always seems to be some idiot who doesn't care that the elevator door only fits no more than two at a time and the elevator is full. They are getting on the instant the door opens.

And it's a wonder we can't properly run an election, huh?

Posted by: Road Rager on March 10, 2003 10:36 AM

"Of course, the most excerise they do is get in and out of their car..."

Yea! While we're on that subject, how about treadmills at urinals or arm wrestling while carpooling? We could have arm wrestling only lanes on the freeway! Wait, I have more, but I'm late...

Posted by: Studebacher Hoch on March 10, 2003 11:04 AM

If I recall correctly (forgive me for being in a bit of vodka-induced haze), the old Soviet subways in Moscow solved this dilemma in two ways:

1 - They were very long, in order to ensure the subway stations were deep enought to be used for bomb shelters

2 - They were only wide enough for one person, anyway.

Posted by: Lost Poke on March 10, 2003 2:37 PM

i remember reading in the glossary of some bruce mau design book that escalators make the vertical horizontal or something; couldn't find the exact quote :D did find this tho! "Key to the evolution of retail were two technological developments: air conditioning and escalators. The latter, assert architects Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss and Sze Tsung Leong, has had a greater impact on shopping than any other invention. By enabling a seamless flow of people and commerce, they say, the escalator made possible the creation of the department store at the turn of the 20th century."

Posted by: kenny on March 10, 2003 3:13 PM

There are some great stairwells to be found. I generally prefer to avoid lifts (time-permitting), but like running up escalators. When I was about 14 I had this friend who would take the stairs down from the his 14th floor apartment while I took the lift. If the lift stopped once or more, he'd beat me to the bottom. After a while I took to chasing him down the stairs. He was classy. I never beat him but it left me with an enduring preference for self-powered assent and descent in buildings.

Posted by: Jim on March 10, 2003 11:01 PM

I live in Boston and generally take the stairs between the escalators in the subway to save time. You see, people in Boston, who are in a hurry to be ANYWHERE but where they are at any moment, and you --that's right YOU-- are totally blocking them somehow, just freeze when they get on the escalator. Blank, expressionless faces just look beyond you like they are searching for ships on the horizon when you say "Excuse me, can I please get by". I was thinking maybe a meat-hook abbatoire system might be more appropriate for these people. The hook would just swing down, gaff them in the spinal cord, and gently haul them up the to the street on well-oiled, 30 wt. ballbearing rollers.

Posted by: Francis Skipper on March 11, 2003 5:53 AM

Where I grew up, in Sault Ste. Marie, there was only one escalator in the whole city. It is in Sears department store. Everyone stands on it because it is likely their only chance to ride it that day.

Posted by: christina on March 11, 2003 10:46 AM

yes, DC metro escalators are a wonder to behold. Most of the time they don't actually work (I knew one to be "undergoing maintenance" for almost two years) but when they do, it's a blessing to take a break and let the concrete roll past.. and past and past and more, what with some of the station depths here! do i want to *walk* uphill for five straight minutes, never daring to stop for fear the person behind me will shove me down? No way!! I sold my car within six months of moving here, and walk absolutely everywhere in the city - but the few moments peace while the escalator whisks me up or down lets me find my ticket and take a peek around at my fellow city dwellers.
I guess I never realized people were orginally intended to continue walking while the escalator moved.. oh well, mall brat!!

Posted by: james on March 20, 2003 1:34 PM

Here is Philadelphia, we have "fast floors" at the airport. It's like an escalator, but rather than going up, it just carrys you down the long hallways. It is apparent by the name "fast floor" that its purpose is for you to walk along, thus getting to the end of the hallway twice as fast. I've watched people around the fast floor and it seems the majority do one of two things. There are those who step on to the fast floor and just stand there, and those who look at the fast floor, get intimidated by it, and walk on the the tile floor beside it. Few people actually walk on the fast floor as it was intended.

By the way, my mother visited Philly recently. She didn't want to use the fast floor. I insisted, and reluctantly, she stepped on. I walked, she stood. I complained. She said she enjoyed the lesiourly ride to the end of the hall.

Posted by: Andy on March 20, 2003 3:29 PM