Escalator etiquette: Should I stand or walk for an efficient ride?

Love them or hate them, traffic laws exist to keep people safe and to help vehicles flow smoothly. And while they aren’t legally enforceable, pedestrian traffic also tends to follow its own set of unwritten rules.

Most pedestrians use walking etiquette as a way to minimize discomfort – “Oops! Sorry to bump you!” – and to improve efficiency – “I want to get there faster!”

Without even thinking about it, you probably abide by the common pedestrian traffic rule that faster walkers should move to the inside of a path while slower walkers gravitate to the outside. In the United States, this aligns with street traffic rules, where vehicles pass on the left, while slower vehicles stay in the right lane of the road.

This approach to passing leads to the formation of pedestrian lanes of traffic. While they’re not painted on sidewalks like they are on roadways, these functional lanes can help pedestrians move more comfortably and quickly. Human systems engineers like me know that pedestrian lanes emerge naturally in crowded environments.

Is this the best advice? Barney Moss, CC BY
Within the built environment, designers have used different techniques to encourage particular pedestrian traffic patterns. One example is signs that encourage pedestrians to “stand to the right” on escalators. Riders will use the right half of the step if they are standing and the left half if they’re walking (or running!) to reach the end of the escalator.

But do two lanes of pedestrian traffic on an escalator actually help you reach your destination more quickly? Should there be a walking lane and a standing lane, or should both lanes be used for standing only? One study reported that 74.9 percent of pedestrians choose to stand on the escalator instead of walking. Should an entire lane of the escalator be left open for a small, impatient proportion of the crowd?

When designers plan spaces such as roads, buildings and corridors, they consider the space needed for each person in the environment. The space needed changes depending on how the space will be used. For a pedestrian, the “buffer zone” describes how much space a person needs to feel comfortable, and varies by activity. Someone standing needs, on average, a little over three square feet (0.3m²) of space, whereas a walking pedestrian needs more than eight square feet (0.75m²). That means a constrained space such as an escalator can comfortably hold more than twice the number of standing pedestrians as walking pedestrians.