Cities have been trying to change escalator etiquette for a while — and failing

A man stands on an escalator at Canary Wharf.
A man stands on an escalator at Canary Wharf. Flickr

When The New York Times wrote a story Tuesday suggesting readers stop walking on escalators, readers reacted with a mix of doubt and consternation. The arguments for standing — more safety and speed — seemed counter-intuitive to riders long trained to “stand on the right, walk on the left.”

But the question of what the correct behavior on an escalator should be is hardly a new one. Cities across the world have been trying to change the escalator etiquette for a while — and they haven’t been successful either.

In Hong Kong, the Mass Transit Railway told people in 2014 and 2015 to stop walking on escalators at all and hold the moving handrail, according to the South China Morning Post. That campaign was even replete with posters and red-clad “Escalator Safety Ambassadors” to try and sway skeptical riders.

Japan implemented a similar attempt for its escalators, where people usually stand on the left and walk on the right, trying to tell its riders to stand on both sides of the escalator instead, according to a 2015 Yomiuri Shimbun report cited by the Morning Post. More than 50 railway companies, airports and the Japanese Elevator Association sponsored the campaign to encourage riders to do so — but to no avail. According to the BBC, Tokyo’s transport system considered banning walking, though such a ban never materialized.

Toronto took a slightly more passive approach, removing signs that encouraged people to walk on the left but not implementing any active guidance to stand still on the moving stairway.

In D.C., the Washington Post reported that Metro used to encourage escalator riders to stand on the right, with announcements that nudged unfamiliar passengers into the common practice: “We have a lot of escalators in our system. You'll notice that most people stand on the right side. And while you're riding, hold the handrail for your safety.”

It even put it into its guidelines on the system website. But earlier this year, the system’s general manager suggested riders should stop walking at all, citing possible damage to the escalator itself, NBC Washington reported. The escalator company later said in a statement that was not the case.

At least one city has had slightly more success. A trial experiment to stop escalator walking at one of London’s busiest Tube stations in 2015 did speed up the number of passengers that passed in and out of the station and lowered congestion in the station by 30 percent, the New York Times reported. But the trial has yet to be extended system-wide.