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Transport / Mass transit

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Not on the London Underground

How do you teach an old dog new tricks?

On the London Underground, they’ve resorted to pleading. “Please stand on both sides of the escalator for better efficiency during refurbishment works!” – so cried a sign at Oxford Circus station the other week.

People read it, before diligently filing to stand the right and leave the left side free for walkers.

Having everyone stand still on the escalator is a more efficient way to empty a station at rush hour – Transport for London is right about this.

So why won’t we just do it? The problem is that TfL is up against Tube etiquette, and for Londoners, anything else is anarchy or tourism.

Habits are hard to break.

A 2016 study from Duke University suggests habits leave lasting marks on circuits in the brain, priming us to repeat an action long after it stops being beneficial. So depending on your outlook, Londoners are either shaming or priding themselves by refusing to comply with requests to stand on both sides – now as well as during escalator trials in 2015 and 2016.

The Holborn experiment worked as long as Tube staff were physically present to enforce it, facing off swearing, showing, and eye rolling. Without supervision, the travelling public quickly returned to the habit of a lifetime.

The escalators at Holborn station. Image: Renaissance Chambara/creative commons.

TfL learned two lessons at Holborn, according to a Freedom of Information request by Gizmodo. Firstly, it’s really hard to change crowd behaviour. Secondly, we really should be trying, as it would be better for all of us. The tube network is bursting at the seams, and having people stand instead of walk could mean station capacity increasing by about 30%.

The specifics depend on the number of people and the length of the escalator, although TfL summed it up nicely to CityMetric at the time of the initial test: “We get a lot of congestion at the bottom because the majority of customers don’t want to walk. The left hand side empty, while everyone is queuing up to stand on the right. By filling up both sides, we can actually carry more people more quickly and clear that congestion.”

You’d think this is an idea that Londoners could get behind: do this simple thing you’ll get in and out of the station faster.

And better yet: the station becomes far less likely to temporarily close to prevent overcrowding, meaning we won’t be piling up outside a closed station door. But TfL aren’t planning any more trials, in large part because it’s just too hard to get people to cooperate.

Beautifully shiny, empty escalators. Image: Tom Page/creative commons.

This may seem ridiculous, but as all logical minds eventually discover: rationality isn’t always the motivating force.

Habit is just one factor here – Londoners have come to see the idea of walking on the left as a signifier of belonging, to the point where being elbowed for standing on the wrong side may be considered a genuine London tourist experience. And besides, walking on one side of the escalator feels like it should be more efficient, right?

Now, if you’re ready to dismiss this whole escalator business as “a London thing”, consider how most airlines board their planes back to front, despite evidence proving this is the slowest method of all.

That may seem counter-intuitive, but when everyone boarding together has to go to the same ten rows, they pile up behind each other and everything slows down.

Paddington, with those fun stairs you can run up. Image: Chris McKenna/creative commons.

When the Discovery Channel tested out various boarding methods, back-to-front boarding was found to be the slowest, taking 25 minutes to board 173 people. Far quicker was random boarding to assigned seats, which took just 17 minutes.


Part of the problem is that we have so much carry-on baggage now that airlines charge for check-in luggage, resulting in airplane boarding times having more than doubled since 1970. But while people still have to put their bags away during random boarding, at least they’re spread out along the entire length of the plane.

Airlines are aware of these facts too, and it’s expensive to idle on the runway. So why are we still boarding from the back of the plane?

One of the reasons is that people really don’t like random boarding, apparently finding it “frustrating” or “confusing (a fact that’s confusing in its own right – we’re talking about sitting down in a plane here).

But it shows that London commuters aren’t that unusual. Once we have an idea about the best way to do something, it’s hard to change, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Not to mention how the pleasure of habit is often its own reward.

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