The Argument Against “Stand Right; Walk Left”

Home Special Feature The Argument Against “Stand Right; Walk Left”

And the weird history of escalator etiquette

Photo by Jonathan Cuevas

In September last year, right at the kickoff of the shopping “-Ber” months, SM Malls rolled out a campaign to convince its customer base to be mindful when riding their escalators. They started displaying signs at the mouth of moving stairways, asking the public to stay on the right side of the aisle if they plan on just standing, and to keep left if they plan to walk (henceforth: SR;WL).

It was one of the very few times escalator etiquette was ever taken seriously in the Philippines.

On September 4, Ken Lerona, a Facebook subscriber who visited SM Aura Premier, took a photograph of one of these posters and published it with the following caption on his page: “Kudos to SM Supermalls for starting this discipline. It’s about time we practice this. If we can abide by this rule in other countries, for sure we can do this in our own land.”

It went viral. The reaction was generally positive, calling to the discussion how SR;WL is common practice in many modern cities around the world.

A year before, in October 2015, the online media agency, Rappler, published an article as part of its move.ph advocacy section, pushing for a discussion as to why SR;WL, isn’t practiced in Manila train stations.

Amid statements of support for SR;WL and calls for discipline in the comments section were only one or two party poopers (“Thats why escalators are invented in order not to walk….there are stairs to do that”). These naysayers, though they may come across as simple contrarians, may have a point.

TL;DR: This piece might as well be called “an argument against walking on escalators, period.” But that would be superfluous in the Philippines, where escalator etiquette has remained nonexistent until very recently. Now, a lack of etiquette isn’t something to encourage, but it just might be the case that what Filipinos have been doing–not SR;WL–might have been the right way all along.

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As crowds traverse the few light-rail transit stations of Metro Manila, no recognizable order can be discerned. For one thing, the rush hours are simply too packed, so there’s little room for those in a hurry to squeeze through. Also, a lot of station escalators are narrow and are complemented by relatively wider stairs. But, even for wider escalators on lighter hours, the general practice is to stand wherever you want, side by side if you please. If you’re in a hurry, maybe excuse yourself and slice through.

This is in stark contrast to the rail transit systems in cities that are models of urban public transportation.

In the London Underground or Singapore’s MRT, crowds of commuters, by their own volition, herd themselves into an orderly two-lane system where the majority stands to the one side of an escalator, in order to leave the other open for hurrying passengers who would prefer to walk.

As Filipinos become more familiarized with the public transportation systems of different so-called global cities, a local desire to emulate these systems starts to foment. There is a common misconception, however, that escalator etiquette–specifically SR;WL, or its variant, SL;WR–is an imposition on the public by transport officials.

It is the other way around. In fact, authorities from all over the world have started trying to disabuse commuters of the habit. And they’re doing it at the risk of public backlash.

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No one has ever been able to pinpoint precisely when SR;WL etiquette began, but no one is contesting that it first came to practice in London, heart of the industrial bellwether, the British Empire, shortly after the turn of the 20th century, when escalators were new. In 2009, the BBC posited that it came about because of early escalator design, which employed a “diagonal step-off, clearly meant for the right foot first so standing on the right made sense.”

More likely, though, it came about because it soon became apparent that some people wanted to stand on the new contraptions and others wanted to walk–a duality that persists to this day. Transport officials were obliged to impose (or, quite frankly, suggest) standardizations in response to a public want.  

London-based researcher Mike Horne, who blogs extensively about the history of the British transport services, pointed out that the rule was enforced halfheartedly back in the day, or, as he puts it: “in a rather desultory way; the notices are often only placed on the right, where people are already standing, and in such circumstances there is nothing to incite a feeling of guilt amongst those doing it wrong.”

Contemporary examples of authorities dragging their feet to enforce SR;WL aren’t hard to find. In 2007, The Washington Post reported that D.C. Metro officials only started “ever-so-gently” encouraging passengers to take on the protocol that year through a series of recorded prompts that began with

“Hi. Welcome to Metro. 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.”

If you’ll notice, the announcement does not encourage people to walk on the left, and merely points out how commonplace standing to the right is.

It’s easy to assume the move was made to pander to commuter sentiment. The Post reports that “the agency has resisted promoting the ‘walk left, stand right’ standard because escalators … are not designed for walkers.”

The London Underground has long been studying the efficiency-related benefits of asking people to stop walking on escalators, with a little success in isolated stations last year. Commuters were annoyed at first, but acclimatized to standing after a few weeks. The Underground has committed itself to studying the matter well into the future.

In recent years, however, officials in the busiest metros of Asia–namely, Hong Kong, and cities in China and Japan–have elevated their campaigns against SR;WL to address a much more pressing concern: public safety.

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On August 17, 2015, the HK MTR launched a poster campaign, a video, and deployed 40 “Escalator Safety Ambassadors” dressed in red t-shirts, tasked to ask people to refrain from walking.

“Hong Kong MTR chiefs now claim walking on escalators is a safety hazard,” reported the South China Morning Post (SCMP). “In fact, it’s so dangerous, they are warning everyone to stand completely still and hold on to the hand rail.”

The MTR says it dealt with 382 escalator-related accidents in the first seven months of 2015.

According to Francis Li, the HK MTR’s head of operations, “43% were due to people falling because they move, or walk along the escalator. So the result of the accident rate indicates if they stand they will be safer.”  

That same month, the SCMP also reported that Japanese railway operators took this initiative a step further by not only encouraging commuters to stand on escalators, but to stand on both aisles, side by side, even–and this is serious–holding hands if they are couples.

The campaign was driven by numbers from Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency, which says that from 2011 to 2013, 3,865 people in Tokyo had been hospitalized for escalator-related injuries. “The number of accidents decreases during the campaign period,” says the East Japan Railway Co.

Finally, as recent as January 2017, train officials in China’s giant metropolises reneged on their highly publicised 2008 campaign in favor of SR;WL, which was conducted to prepare the population for the influx of thousands of international visitors during the Olympics.

The counter campaign [pay wall] started when Nanjing’s subway operator issued a social media post in December 2016, urging people to not walk; “It’s more important to stand still and hold the rail!”

The operator claimed that standing to the right forces a strain on escalators which they weren’t designed to withstand, and that “95% of escalators experienced severe wear and tear on the right side.”

In all the countries mentioned, the campaigns have faced resistance. The East Japan Railway Co. admitted during its 2015 campaign that “the practice of keeping one side open is strongly rooted.”

While in London, backlash comes from a demand from commuters to be given a choice, in Asia, there is the added fact that governments have, at some point in the past and with a degree of success, actively campaigned for precisely what they are now trying to eradicate.  

Which brings to mind the Philippines, which, though addled by debilitating urban density and weak infrastructure, is at the point wherein people are starting to give it thought. Considering the enthusiasm for initial campaigns such as the one started by SM Malls, the commuting public and transport officials will have to decide soon, to prepare for that hoped-for future when the cities of Metro Manila, and around the archipelago, are riddled with train stations.

But, before that, the notion that SR;WL is the definite gold standard of escalator etiquette must be dispelled, lest we end up like China in a few years, struggling to re-educate the public after what would most likely be a hardfought information campaign.

What to do, then. Stand to the right and walk to the left? Stand to the left and walk to the right? Or just stand.

Whichever choice is made, it has to be made mindfully.

Cause what we’ve been doing all this time–falling into what is turning out to be the best practice by never bothering to develop a practice in the first place? It might be in no way better than having made the wrong choice.

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