Yes, it’s official: standing on busy escalators is faster than walking up (or down) them. Research undertaken by my favourite local transport provider, Transport for London, has conclusively proved that if people stand on both sides of the escalator during peak travel times, the numbers carried can increase by as much as a third.
Well, for once that’s a piece of good crowd news in our febrile and fissiparous world, guiding us towards sensible mass behaviour of a type to appal Yevgeny Zamyatin: think We, people, not a Beckettian I. TfL’s aim is to introduce standing-only escalators at some of its busiest and deepest stations in order to cut down on congestion.
The idea that plonking yourself on an escalator like an inert potato is faster than walking obviously seems absurd if you’re a limber fellow like me, who cannot see a long escalator without wanting to sprint up it or trip lightly down, sole after sole barely glancing the groovy tread – but of course the vast number of London Tube passengers are morbidly obese tourists humping ectomorphic wheelie bags, and such is their aversion to exercise that they clutter up the subterranean halls waiting for a tread to stand on.
Moreover, according to the escalator-flow wonks at TfL, passengers also jealously guard their personal space, often not using up all the treads available, but insisting on at least one between them and the next tubby traveller.
So, from now on, using just signage and other info-bumf, TfL will instruct its passengers at a number of the busiest stations in London to stand on both sides of the escalator. According to the aptly named Peter McNaught, operations director at London Underground: “Anyone who wants to walk on the other escalators will be free to do so, but we hope that with record numbers using the Tube, customers will enjoy being part of this experiment to find the most efficient ways of getting around.”
To which the only possible reply is, “Go f**k yourself!” Because I’ve not only been running up and down crowded escalators for years, I also experience some of my wildest and most bacchanalian pleasure from elbowing aside anyone unfortunate enough to get in my way.
As any true Londoner (or city-dweller generally) knows, observing these mass-travel mores is what divides us thrusting rams from the baaing flocks of docile ewes. To take the escalator at a run is a badge of honour for a metropolitan type – it shows he or she is a force to be reckoned with, fully competent when it comes to navigating the urban millrace.
As I’m pounding up or down I like to cry out, “Excuse me!” even as I barge against unsuspecting shoulders, or kick small children into mid-air – this retrospective “warning” being, naturally, a stern admonition, and even a punishment. Yes, yes, I know my behaviour is obnoxious – I understand that on crowded public transport we should all try to rub along (metaphorically) – but as our cities grow more densely populated, and the pace of life grows more frenetic, we all have recourse to strategies that help us to feel the shape of our individuality amidst the crush.
So, Mr McNaught, your signage and info-bumf will avail you naught. I intend to go on escalator-yomping for as long as my legs hold out. Other folk imagine that by piping pop into their inner ears, or fixedly playing Candy Crush as they bumble along, they’re somehow mitigating the ugly reality of being just a number, not a name, but to those of us who view the Tube as a psychic assault course, they’re clearly out of the running: mere drones, waiting for some operations director or other to tell them what to say, and think, and, of course, do.
(And apropos Candy Crush, has anyone else noticed the strange similarity between these streams of cascading and intermittently exploding citrus fruits, and the flows of underground passengers on, er, escalators? People are pretty scathing about Candy Crush, but a reasonable case can be made for it being the legitimate art form of mass transit systems for precisely this reason.)
Not only will I continue running on escalators, but I’m going to persist in sprinting on travelators. You can really get up speed on a travelator! And when the wooden passengers fly every which way out of your path, the similarity to a ten-pin bowling alley is most pleasing. I often used to go to Paris just in order to run full pelt along the notorious trottoir roulant rapide installed in the Montparnasse-Bienvenüe Métro station. I like to think my bullish runs alone contributed to some of the injuries that led to its being replaced by a boring old one that runs at 2.9 kilometres an hour.
Every child has experienced the sense of wonder that comes as you watch the once-solidly right-angled risers and treads mysteriously flattening under your flying feet, before disappearing into the steely maw – but if McNaught and his ilk have their way, future generations will be condemned to leaden passivity: standing there, watching the advertisements purl past. That’s the wet-look of capitalism. In Mr McNaught’s happy world all you have to do to progress is stand still.
This article appears in the 30 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail